How Matthew Shepard's shocking death woke the world up to homophobic hate crime

The 21-year-old student died on 12 October 1998, six days after he was beaten, tied to a fence and left to die in rural Wyoming.


On 7 October 1998, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was found tied to a fence post, almost crucifixion-style, in a field outside Laramie, Wyoming.

Bleeding, half-frozen and shoeless, the American college student had been left to die after being beaten, tortured and repeatedly whipped around his head with a gun wielded by two men he met in a local bar then hitched a ride with.

Five days later, Matthew succumbed to his terrible injuries in a hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado.

The shocking killing is widely regarded as one of the most horrific anti-gay hate crimes in US history, with blond-haired, blue-eyed Matthew becoming the human symbol for acts of violence against the LGBT+ community.

Judy and Dennis are living in Saudi Arabia, where the latter was working as a safety engineer, when they receive a call in the middle of the night.

Arriving at the hospital, neither mum nor dad recognise their boy, who is on life support and hooked up to multiple machines, due to the severity of his injuries.

“His head was completely swathed in bandages, there were stitches closing wounds all over his face, his right ear had been torn away… he was so swollen and distorted, and already in the comatose position with his fingers and toes curled,” Judy recalls in our November Awards issue.

“But one of his eyes was still open, so I could see the blue and the long lashes, then the braces on his teeth.”

Dennis adds: “I still think about the first time I walked in: the shock, then the fear that we were going to lose him, which eventually, of course, we did.”

Matthew died soon after, on 12 October, surrounded by the sounds of his favourite music and the familiar scent of the perfume that he had recently bought for his mother.

High school drop-outs Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney — aged 21 and 22, respectively, at the time of the crime — are each serving two life sentences for Matt’s murder. With no chance of parole, they’ll spend the rest of their days behind bars.

Justice has been served in terms of prison sentencing, but a sticking point is that the men were never charged with a hate crime, for preying on and lynching Matt because of his sexuality.

“In the state of Wyoming, there are no hate crime laws whatsoever,” Judy explains.

“It was an attack, an assault, [the fact] they did it because Matt was gay was perhaps, in quotation marks, a peripheral reason, they couldn’t say that he was murdered because of that, even after the two gentlemen made statements indicating as much.”

That lit one of many fires inside Judy and Dennis. After being flooded with messages of support, particularly from other parents of gay children, they decided to channel their anger and grief into decisive action, to distil their unimaginable pain and suffering into something meaningful: activism.

Two months after Matt’s death — on his birthday, 1 December — they formed The Matthew Shepard Foundation.

Funds were plunged into education programmes to teach the next generation about embracing difference and diversity, not to mention the creation of an online platform called Matthew’s Place, a safe space for LGBT+ youth.

“We had an opportunity to help his peers, his friends and other young people,” explains Judy.

The Shepards didn’t stop there and, in October 2009, after 11 long years of lobbying, they joined thenpresident Barack Obama for the passing of The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

 The legal milestone — also in response to the murder of African-American Byrd Jr. by three white supremacists in 1998 — expanded the federal hate crime law to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

“It’s massive,” Judy says, “the FBI were grateful because they now had the wherewithal to prosecute crimes that they would not, or could not, before.”

Twenty years on, Attitude is honouring Judy and Dennis and the legacy that they have carved out in their son’s name, with our Inspiration Award, which the couple picked up at the Attitude Awards in London on Thursday (11 October), almost 20 years to the day since their son’s death.

Currently trying to push through legislation to make the reporting of a hate crime mandatory — we are supposed to believe that Miami has had just one case since 2000 — the Shepards’ fight is fuelled by a desire to see a bigotry-free world fi lled with acceptance, a world best summarised by Dennis’s touching reaction to his son’s coming out.

“He said, ‘Sit down I need to tell you something’,” Dennis recalls.“He took a deep breath and added: ‘Dad, ‘I’m gay’.

 “I looked at him, then I looked at my watch and said, ‘You know, it’s really late, tell me what’s so important so I can to bed’.

“You saw the wind just go out him because I think he thought that I was going to yell and scream, throw chairs around, break open the door, and the next thing he’s in a blizzard pushing a shopping cart down the road!”

Dennis adds: “That was it. I just gave him a hug and said, ‘If you remember what’s important, let me know’.”

Read the full interview with Judy and Dennis Shepard and read about the winners from the Virgin Holidays Attitude Awards 2018, powered by Jaguar in the November Awards issue of Attitude, out now.

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