Matthew Shepard was killed in Wyoming in 1998. His death became a symbol of violence against gay people.

Courtesy The Matthew Shepard Foundation (Matthew Shepard); hand lettering by Nina Chakrabarti; Shutterstock.com (ripped paper)

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.6, RH.6-8.7, RH.6-8.9, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.3, RI.6-8.6, RI.6-8.9, SL.6-8.1, SL.6-8.4, SL.6-8.5, WHST.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.4

C3 (D2/6-8): Civ.3, Civ.7, Civ.10, Civ.12, His.1, His.2, His.4, His.5, His.14, His.15

NCSS: Culture; Time, continuity, and change; Civic ideals and practices; Individual development and identity


FLASHBACK

Remembering Matthew Shepard

Twenty years ago, a college student was brutally murdered just for being himself. Learn how his death changed our country—and why his legacy remains important to America’s future.

As You Read, Think About: What can people do to stand up to hate?

From an early age, Matthew Shepard was on a mission to make a difference in the world. At just 7 years old, he volunteered for an environmental group that was working to get his hometown of Casper, Wyoming, to start a recycling program. In the sixth grade, he played his role model, Abraham Lincoln, in a school play. And in high school, he was elected as a peer counselor because he was committed to helping others.

Shepard was also passionate about international human rights, an interest that eventually led him to study political science at the University of Wyoming in the city of Laramie. He hoped to one day work for the U.S. State Department, where he could devote his life to helping people in other countries gain the same opportunities that he had in the United States.

But Shepard never got to realize his dreams. Just after midnight on October 7, 1998, when Shepard was a 21-year-old college student, two men lured him to a field outside Laramie. They viciously beat him, tied him to a fence, and left him in the freezing cold. Why? Because Matthew Shepard was gay.

From an early age, Matthew Shepard was on a mission to make a difference in the world. At just 7 years old, he volunteered for an environmental group. The group was working to get his hometown of Casper, Wyoming, to start a recycling program. In the sixth grade, he played Abraham Lincoln, his role model, in a school play. And in high school, he was elected as a peer counselor. That was because he was committed to helping others.

Shepard was also passionate about international human rights. That interest eventually led him to study political science at the University of Wyoming in the city of Laramie. He hoped to one day work for the U.S. State Department. There, he could devote his life to helping people in other countries gain the same opportunities that he had in the United States.

But Shepard never got to realize his dreams. When he was a 21-year-old college student, two men lured him to a field outside Laramie. It was just after midnight on October 7, 1998. The men viciously beat him and tied him to a fence. They left him there in the freezing cold. Why? Because Matthew Shepard was gay.

Six days later, Shepard died. His death was ruled a murder—one of the most shocking hate crimes in U.S. history—and made headlines across the nation. It inspired a movement that highlighted violence against the LGBTQ community, which led to more comprehensive hate-crime laws. (LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning.)

Today, more than 20 years since his tragic death, Shepard has become a symbol in America’s fight against hate. And while important strides have been made toward combating prejudice and violence against LGBTQ people in that time, many Americans believe the country has not come far enough.

“Matt’s life and his death made such a huge impact,” says Jay Brown of the Human Rights Campaign, a group that fights for LGBTQ rights. “But we know this work is not over by any means.”

Six days later, Shepard died. His death was ruled a murder. It was one of the most shocking hate crimes in U.S. history. And it made headlines across the nation. It inspired a movement that highlighted violence against the LGBTQ community, which led to more comprehensive hate-crime laws. (LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning.)

It has been more than 20 years since Shepard’s tragic death. In that time, he has become a symbol in America’s fight against hate. Important strides have been made toward fighting prejudice and violence against LGBTQ people. But many Americans believe the country has not come far enough.

“Matt’s life and his death made such a huge impact,” says Jay Brown. He is with the Human Rights Campaign. That group is one that fights for LGBTQ rights. “But we know this work is not over by any means.”

You Might Need to Know . . . 

SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

A memorial honors the 11 Jewish people killed in a mass shooting hate crime at a synagogue in Pennsylvania last year.

HATE CRIMES are criminal acts such as murder, assault, or vandalism that are motivated by a person’s prejudice against someone due to his or her identity or for being perceived as different. A person or group of people may be targeted for a hate crime because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, disability, or sexual orientation.

HATE CRIMES are criminal acts such as murder, assault, or vandalism that are motivated by a person’s prejudice against someone due to his or her identity or for being perceived as different. A person or group of people may be targeted for a hate crime because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, disability, or sexual orientation.

Sparking a Movement

Twenty years ago, many Americans thought the country had outgrown its history of violent discrimination against the LGBTQ community. Shepard’s death was a wake-up call. “People thought things were starting to change,” Brown says. “Then they realized that being gay could still be a matter of life and death.”

After Shepard died, then-President Bill Clinton gave a speech condemning Shepard’s attackers.

“Crimes of hate and crimes of violence cannot be tolerated in our country,” Clinton said. “In our shock and grief, one thing must remain clear: Hate and prejudice are not American values.”

Within days, thousands of people gathered in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., to urge Congress to create more federal protections for LGBTQ people. And across the country, thousands of others marched through the streets and held vigils to mourn Shepard. Many people began to compare the college student’s murder to that of Emmett Till, an African American teen who was brutally killed in Mississippi in 1955 (see Emmett Till sidebar, below).

“Everybody saw something, regardless of their race, or religion, or skin color, in Matthew that they could see either in themselves or somebody in their family,” says Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father. “He was the kid next door.”

Twenty years ago, many Americans thought the country had outgrown its history of violent discrimination against the LGBTQ community. Shepard’s death was a wake-up call. “People thought things were starting to change,” Brown says. “Then they realized that being gay could still be a matter of life and death.”

After Shepard died, then-President Bill Clinton gave a speech condemning Shepard’s attackers.

“Crimes of hate and crimes of violence cannot be tolerated in our country,” Clinton said. “In our shock and grief, one thing must remain clear: Hate and prejudice are not American values.”

Within days, thousands of people gathered in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. They urged Congress to create more federal protections for LGBTQ people. And across the country, thousands of others marched through the streets. They held vigils to mourn Shepard. Many people began to compare the college student’s murder to that of Emmett Till. Till was an African American teen who was brutally killed in Mississippi in 1955 (see Emmett Till sidebar, below).

“Everybody saw something, regardless of their race, or religion, or skin color, in Matthew that they could see either in themselves or somebody in their family,” says Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father. “He was the kid next door.”

Evan Agostini/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A candlelight vigil for Shepard in New York City on October 19, 1998.

Combating Violence

Police ultimately arrested two 21-year-olds, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, and charged them with murdering Shepard. They admitted to killing the college student because he was gay. Both men were convicted, and each was sentenced to life in prison.

But Shepard’s parents were determined not to let his story end there. For 10 years, they called on Congress to create stricter legislation that would protect LGBTQ people against hate crimes. At the time, the federal hate-crime law covered only race, skin color, religion, gender, and national origin.

Finally, in 2009, LGBTQ people were given protection by the hate-crime law. It gave the U.S. Department of Justice the power to work with local police to prosecute violent crimes like the one committed against Shepard.

In time, police arrested Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Both were 21 years old. They were charged with murdering Shepard. The men admitted to killing the college student because he was gay. Both of them were convicted. Each was sentenced to life in prison.

But Shepard’s parents were determined not to let his story end there. For 10 years, they called on Congress to create stricter legislation. They wanted the law to protect LGBTQ people against hate crimes. At the time, the federal hate-crime law covered only race, skin color, religion, gender, and national origin.

Finally, in 2009, LGBTQ people were given protection by the hate-crime law. It gave the U.S. Department of Justice the power to work with local police to prosecute violent crimes like the one committed against Shepard.

How to Stand Up to Hate

Change the Subject
If you hear someone saying something hateful about a person or a group of people, let that person know you don’t agree—if you feel comfortable doing so. You can also change the subject. Interrupting a tense conversation can often defuse the situation.

Be a Friend
Support someone being mistreated by reaching out to him or her privately. That will make the person feel less alone without drawing more attention to a painful situation.

Strength in Numbers
Rally allies to oppose hate. When racist graffiti was found at Tamalpais High School in California last year, students led a protest. Then they decorated school property with chalk drawings of flowers and rainbows, as well as messages of “No Hate.”

Tell an Adult
When in doubt—or if the situation seems like more than you can handle—tell a trusted adult, such as a parent, a teacher, or a coach, about what’s going on.

Change the Subject
If you hear someone saying something hateful about a person or a group of people, let that person know you don’t agree—if you feel comfortable doing so. You can also change the subject. Interrupting a tense conversation can often defuse the situation.

Be a Friend
Support someone being mistreated by reaching out to him or her privately. That will make the person feel less alone without drawing more attention to a painful situation.

Strength in Numbers
Rally allies to oppose hate. When racist graffiti was found at Tamalpais High School in California last year, students led a protest. Then they decorated school property with chalk drawings of flowers and rainbows, as well as messages of “No Hate.”

Tell an Adult
When in doubt—or if the situation seems like more than you can handle—tell a trusted adult, such as a parent, a teacher, or a coach, about what’s going on.

SOURCES: The Cyberbullying Research Center, the Prevention Innovations Research Center, and others

More Work to Do

Since Shepard’s death, the U.S. as a whole has grown more accepting of LGBTQ people. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that gay couples could marry. Last fall, voters in Colorado elected the nation’s first openly gay governor. And today, more LGBTQ characters feature in TV shows, such as Modern Family, and in movies, like Love, Simon.

What’s more, many LGBTQ teens say they feel comfortable being who they are. Surveys show that between 8 percent and 20 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds say they identify as LGBTQ—a greater proportion than any generation before.

However, many hate crimes are still being committed against LGBTQ people—about 1,200 violent incidents in 2017 alone. And nearly three-quarters of LGBTQ teens say they don’t always feel safe at school.

Since Shepard’s death, the U.S. as a whole has grown more accepting of LGBTQ people. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that gay couples could marry. Last fall, voters in Colorado elected the nation’s first openly gay governor. And today, more LGBTQ characters feature in TV shows, such as Modern Family. They also feature in movies, like Love, Simon.

What is more, many LGBTQ teens say they feel comfortable being who they are. Surveys show that between 8 percent and 20 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds say they identify as LGBTQ. That is a greater proportion than any generation before.

However, many hate crimes are still being committed against LGBTQ people. About 1,200 violent incidents took place in 2017 alone. And nearly three-quarters of LGBTQ teens say they do not always feel safe at school.

Emmett Till - The Murder That Fueled the Civil Rights Movement

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

In August of 1955, Emmett Till, an African American teen from Chicago, Illinois, was visiting relatives in Mississippi. The 14-year-old went into a grocery store to buy candy and, while there, a white woman accused him of grabbing her. Witnesses alleged that he whistled at her.

Four days later, two white men lynched the teen. They kidnapped Emmett from his uncle’s home, then savagely beat him and shot him dead before dumping his body into a river.

The two men were acquitted by an all-white jury, but they later bragged publicly about having committed the crime.

Although no one was ever brought to justice for Emmett’s murder, his death made national headlines as an example of the brutal treatment black people experienced in the South. By the 1950s, the Civil War—which led to the end of slavery—had been over for nearly a century. Yet in the South, where Jim Crow laws and customs prevailed, violence against blacks was a way of life.

Widely published photos of Emmett’s funeral, which showed his horribly disfigured face, stunned Americans. His death helped galvanize support for the civil rights movement, which was just beginning to gather steam. In the years to follow, the passage of several landmark laws would help bring greater racial equality to African Americans. However, as with the LGBTQ community, discrimination is still widespread in the U.S., and many Americans say more work needs to be done.

In August of 1955, Emmett Till, an African American teen from Chicago, Illinois, was visiting relatives in Mississippi. The 14-year-old went into a grocery store to buy candy and, while there, a white woman accused him of grabbing her. Witnesses alleged that he whistled at her.

Four days later, two white men lynched the teen. They kidnapped Emmett from his uncle’s home, then savagely beat him and shot him dead before dumping his body into a river.

The two men were acquitted by an all-white jury, but they later bragged publicly about having committed the crime.

Although no one was ever brought to justice for Emmett’s murder, his death made national headlines as an example of the brutal treatment black people experienced in the South. By the 1950s, the Civil War—which led to the end of slavery—had been over for nearly a century. Yet in the South, where Jim Crow laws and customs prevailed, violence against blacks was a way of life.

Widely published photos of Emmett’s funeral, which showed his horribly disfigured face, stunned Americans. His death helped galvanize support for the civil rights movement, which was just beginning to gather steam. In the years to follow, the passage of several landmark laws would help bring greater racial equality to African Americans. However, as with the LGBTQ community, discrimination is still widespread in the U.S., and many Americans say more work needs to be done.

“There Is Hope”

Since their son’s death, Shepard’s parents have devoted their lives to helping the LGBTQ community. They travel around the country and urge young people to stand up against hate. “I want them to know there is hope,” says Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother. 

It was that same goal that led the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., to begin displaying some of Shepard’s belongings last fall.

The museum honors people who have shaped U.S. history. It displays Abraham Lincoln’s top hat and Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. Now it also features a Superman cape Shepard wore when he was a kid, a ribbon he won in track, and a ring he hoped to give to the person he would one day marry.

Katherine Ott, who is in charge of the collection, hopes that seeing Shepard’s things will help people relate to him. They’ll see that at one point, he was just a kid who liked to pretend he was a superhero. 

“It’s OK to be different,” Ott explains. “The things that make you different should not put you in danger.”

Since their son’s death, Shepard’s parents have devoted their lives to helping the LGBTQ community. They travel around the country and urge young people to stand up against hate. “I want them to know there is hope,” says Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother.

It was that same goal that led the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., to begin displaying some of Shepard’s belongings last fall.

The museum honors people who have shaped U.S. history. It displays Abraham Lincoln’s top hat. It shows Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. Now it also features a Superman cape that Shepard wore when he was a kid and a ribbon he won in track. And it displays a ring he hoped to give to the person he would one day marry.

Katherine Ott is in charge of the collection. She hopes that seeing Shepard’s things will help people relate to him. They will see that at one point, he was just a kid who liked to pretend he was a superhero.

“It’s OK to be different,” Ott explains. “The things that make you different should not put you in danger.”

Write About It! How have attitudes toward LGBTQ people changed since Matthew Shepard’s death? What challenges does the community still face?

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