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Remembering Matthew Shepard 25 years after his murder

Photo+courtesy+of+the+Matthew+Shepard+Foundation
Photo courtesy of the Matthew Shepard Foundation

Matthew Shepard was a normal college student simply going about his life when he was murdered 25 years ago for existing as a young gay man. The attack is one of the most well-known hate crimes in recent history, and it has had a lasting impact on both the LGBTQIA+ community and the country as a whole.

On the night of Oct. 6, 1998, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was attacked and tortured by two men. He was left to die, tied to a fence post in a field just outside Laramie, Wyoming. He survived the night and was taken to the UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins the next morning to be treated but ultimately died from his injuries Oct. 12, 1998, six days after the attack. 

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The story of Matthew Shepard’s murder shocked the nation and became the basis for federal hate crime legislation, but behind the legacy of his death is the life of a young man who loved theater, was passionate about politics and the environment and always wanted to help others. 

“He was an extreme extrovert, empathetic, never met a stranger,” said Judy Shepard, Matthew Shepard’s mother. “People were drawn to him, you know. (He was) a charismatic individual. I think they sensed a kind soul.”

Matthew Shepard was born in Casper, Wyoming, and took part in local theater productions throughout his youth. He was engaged in local politics and volunteered to plant trees after the Yellowstone National Park fires of 1988. He moved to Saudi Arabia with his family when he was a junior in high school, and he attended a boarding school in Switzerland, where he learned to speak Japanese, Arabic, German and Italian, Judy Shepard said. 

“He loved to travel, try new things, new foods,” Judy Shepard said. “He was always learning about different cultures. He just loved people and life and everything it had to offer.”

Matthew Shepard was a student at the University of Wyoming at the time of his death. His mother said he was working toward a career in government.

“We waste a lot of time in the world of hate, right? We waste a lot of time there, and (we waste) effort and energy where we could be doing good things instead of looking for reasons to single people out because they’re different.” -Judy Shepard, Matthew Shepard’s mother

“He was about to change the world in his mind,” Judy Shepard said. “He wanted to be part of the (U.S. Department of State) when he graduated from college. He was very interested in the effects of foreign aid, especially after living overseas and seeing that the money the American government could give to developing countries didn’t always go to where it should have gone.”

He was always active in the causes he cared about, whether it was campaigning for local elections or working with his university’s LGBTQIA+ organization.

“He wanted to be part of the bigger world,” Judy Shepard said. 

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Though Matthew Shepard’s name has become well known across the country, much of that has come from the way he died, not the way he lived.

“I want people to remember that he was a kid — just a kid — who had so much promise in life and desires and friends and family,” Judy Shepard said. “The way I talk about him is not at all to create this perfect person because he certainly was not that. But just remember that he was a human being that did not deserve what happened to him. Nobody does. Nobody deserves that.”

After Matthew Shepard’s death, his parents started the Matthew Shepard Foundation in honor of his life. According to the foundation’s website, they are “dedicated to working toward the causes championed by Matthew during his life: social justice, diversity awareness and education and equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.”

The world would be a much better place if we all accepted each other for who we are, Judy Shepard said about the work the foundation does. 

“I think that really every ounce of work we’ve done since then — regarding all the marginalized communities, not just the gay community — is about that,” Judy Shepard said. “Why do we think that because somebody is different from us means that we have to treat them with less respect, with suspicion and disdain? Why can we just not accept each other for who we are and learn from that and be a much better, forward-thinking, prosperous society?”

It all boils down to what we lose because of hate, Judy Shepard said. 

“We waste a lot of time in the world of hate, right?” Judy Shepard said. “We waste a lot of time there, and (we waste) effort and energy where we could be doing good things instead of looking for reasons to single people out because they’re different.”

The memory and legacy of Matthew Shepard are incredibly important, but it’s also important to honor who he was in life.

“I think he would want to just be remembered for being a good person,” Judy Shepard said. “In his role in life, he had nothing to do really with the work that’s going on right now. I think he would be pleased that people paid attention and realized change needed to happen, but I think, honestly, he just wanted to be remembered as a good person.”

The life of Matthew Shepard is further commemorated in the book “The Meaning of Matthew,” written by Judy Shepard, and “Matthew Shepard is a Friend of Mine,” a documentary made by Michele Josue, a high school friend of Matthew Shepard.

Reach Hannah Parcells at life@collegian.com or on Twitter @HannahParcells.

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About the Contributor
Hannah Parcells, News Editor
Hannah Parcells is currently the news editor at The Collegian, a role that she loves dearly. Parcells uses she/her pronouns and began writing for The Collegian in fall 2023 as a reporter under the news, science, opinion and life and culture desks.  Parcells is currently pursuing two degrees: a Bachelor of Science in psychology and a Bachelor of Arts in political science with a concentration in global politics. Parcells has always been passionate about understanding and helping other people and hopes to use her education to try and leave the world a little better than she found it.  Raised in Castle Rock, Colorado, Parcells grew up with a love of learning, music and writing. She’s always working to learn more about the world through history and art and loves being introduced to new places, people and ideas.  On the off chance that she’s not buried in textbooks, research papers and policy analyses, Hannah can be found on a hike, watching movies or at any local bookstore or coffee shop, feeding her ongoing addictions to both caffeine and good books. Parcells is incredibly proud of the work she’s done at The Collegian so far and is excited to continue that work as an editor of the news desk.

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