Fort Collins remembers, honors the memory of Matthew Shepard

Charlotte Lang

On Oct. 6, 1998 near Laramie, Wyoming, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead.

Shepard was found the next day by a cyclist and taken to the Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins where, six days later, he died from severe head trauma.

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The story of the college student, attacked and murdered for his sexual orientation, still resonates throughout the Fort Collins community, twenty years after the event.

The Fort Collins and Colorado State University community have dedicated many thoughts and events to the anniversary, from productions inspired by Shepard to personal emotions on the story.

I’m grateful that we can define ourselves not by the tragedies of the past, but by the vibrant culture we’ve established in the present.”

Kara Anderson, CSU Employee

Jaye Cooney, a performer in “The Laramie Project” for the University’s theatre program, said Shepard’s story is important to them and the community.

“As a younger closeted kid, Matt’s story was one of the first I had heard when it came to violent discrimination,” Cooney said. “And as I got older, I experienced violence similar to Matthew… I went into this process fully aware of most of the details: how the nation responded, the backlashes, etc.”

Cooney prepared for their role in “The Laramie Project” by traveling to the scene of the crime and visiting the places mentioned in the script. Understanding the setting, to Cooney, is an important piece of being genuine.

Cooney also understands the violence facing the LGBTQ community, as they’ve witnessed and been victim to such behavior. They said that the full cast and workers on the production have been working hard to successfully and truthfully tell the story. 

“I empathize so much with Matthew’s experiences,” Cooney said. “I think we all knew how important it was to both Fort Collins and Laramie communities.”

The Fort Collins community, in particular, has blown Cooney away by the reactions to Shepard’s story.

“The reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, and while we have seen some negative responses online, we choose to focus on spreading that love and knowledge that comes with Matt’s story,” Cooney said.

Fort Collins has also welcomed the national touring performance of “Conspirare: Considering Matthew Shepard” into the Lincoln Center for a one-night performance. 

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According to the performance’s program guide, Conspirare is a Grammy-winning and internationally recognized choir. Their current project, “Considering Matthew Shepard,” is a vocal and orchestral performance, known as an oratorio, focused on retelling the story of Shepard’s life and death. As an oratorio, this performance focused on telling the story solely through music, without any costumes or scenery.

According to the program, “the work is is an evocative and compassionate musical response to to the murder of Matthew Shepard.”

Artistic Director Craig Hella Johnson wrote “Considering Matthew Shepard” as a way to give voice to his response to Shepard’s death.

“This is meant to be a story about all of us and what it means to be human,” Johnson said.

Johnson also said performing the story in Fort Collins has been a special stop on the tour for all of the performers.

“It feels like we’re on sacred ground,” Johnson said. “We just feel this extreme gratitude to be here. It’s so profoundly meaningful.”

Johnson also said he’d been speaking with Shepard’s parents recently, Judy and Dennis, and said they’d told him that the people of Fort Collins have been kind and good to them over the years.

Michael Dennis Browne also worked on the oratorio as a poet and co-librettist, the writer of the words in an entirely musical production such as this. Browne said it’s been important to come to Fort Collins so close to the anniversary.

The members of the Fort Collins community who came to support the production were quick to share their own memories of the event. One man said he’d been part of the Rainbow Chorus around the time of Shepard’s death and remembers singing in the hospital parking lot.

Lisa Phelps, the first director of the CSU Pride Resource Center, also has memories attached to Shepard’s story, as she said the Pride Center was formed around the same time Shepard died.

One memory Phelps said she has of that time is that of the homecoming float for CSU the weekend following Shepard’s attack.

While Shepard was in the Poudre Valley Hospital, a fraternity and sorority lifted a scarecrow on their float with derogatory things written on it, Phelps said.

Phelps said some people tried to explain it as a coincidence since the theme for the float was Wizard of Oz. However, seeing as news reports explained how a cyclist mistook Shepard for a scarecrow caused many to believe it was an act against Shepard and the LGBTQ community.

“At the time, there was a mix of emotions. There was anger and there was fear and there was also a lot of courage,” Phelps said. “There were also a lot of people who spoke out in support.”

Phelps said she tries not to focus on the negative moments of that time and instead explained how there were people who came out of the woodwork to tell her that they didn’t believe what happened to Shepard was okay and that they wanted her and the LGBTQ community to be safe.

“I don’t want to deny that that happened,” Phelps said. “But I would really like to focus on people coming together.”

An example of the community uniting, Phelps said, was when a small convenience store put up a sign condemning anyone who took part in the float or believed in what the derogatory writing said.

“I didn’t feel unsafe but now I knew there were people who really cared,” Phelps said.

Today, members of the Fort Collins and CSU community can still recognize Shepard’s story as something to learn from and unite against. Kara Anderson, a CSU employee at Braiden Dining Hall, said she’s grateful for the way the community has moved forward since Shepard’s death.

“There’s a long history of violence in the LGBT community,” Anderson said. “But I’m grateful that we can define ourselves not by the tragedies of the past but by the vibrant culture we’ve established in the present.”

Charlotte Lang can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @ChartrickWrites.