“There is no such thing as gay rights.”
I was quite surprised when I heard this from Dennis Shepard, a compassionate international LGBTQ+ activist. But then he continued:
“Only human rights.”
Many people against laws protecting the LGBTQ+ community think that these laws would provide special privileges to the gay community above themselves, he explained.
“Why do gays have special rights but straights don’t?” others have asked him.
His response to such skeptics: “Your son can get married. If your son is fired, he can sue. My son couldn’t. I’m not asking for special privileges. Gay people are not special. Their lives are just as boring as straight people. I’m not asking for gay rights. I’m asking for equal rights.”
So why are Dennis Shepard, sixty-something-year-old cowboy-boot-wearing dry-humored farm boy from Wyoming, and his quiet introverted wife Judy traveling the world to demand equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community?
This is their story.
Dennis & Judy had a son named Matthew Shepard.
Matthew is lovingly described by his father as “your usual pain in the butt son.” Matthew was fascinated by political science and foreign languages, and had a specific passion for advocating human rights. He loved theater, camping, and horseback riding. His friends described him as funny and charismatic, someone with a huge smile who could make friends with anyone who approached him. He wore braces and was always one of, if not the shortest kid in his class, standing only 5’2” and barely 100 pounds at the age of 21. Matthew also happened to be gay.
Matthew Shepard was in the Fireside Bar on October 6, 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming when he was approached by 21-year-olds Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney.
Noticing Matthew was well dressed and a vulnerable, Henderson and McKinney pretended to be gay and lured Matt into their truck. There, they demanded Matt give up his money. Matt, beginning to realize his misplaced trust, handed his wallet over in an attempt to de-escalate the situation. He had only twenty dollars. McKinney and Henderson stole Matt’s shoes and began to beat him repeatedly. They drove him to a field miles out of town where no one could hear him scream for help. McKinney continued to beat Matt harder with his fists and the butt of his three-pound .357 caliber Magnum pistol, while Henderson tied Matt’s wrists and feet to a fence. When they had finished, they left Matt on the ground barefoot, bleeding, alone—clinging desperately to his life.
Later in court, McKinney would claim his actions were justified as being “gay panic defense.” This defense was disallowed by the judge at the trial, but “gay panic defense” has been used to successfully defend countless homophobic murders until it was made illegal in 2013.
“He doesn’t like to be around gay people at all”, said Kristen Price, Aaron McKinney’s girlfriend. “And neither does Russ. They just don’t like them at all… They wanted to teach him a lesson not to come on to straight people.”
Eighteen hours later, after a cold and windy night, University of Wyoming student, Aaron Kreifels, was aimlessly biking down a rough dirt road he had never been down before when he hit a rock and fell. As he stood to dust himself off, he noticed a scarecrow at the foot of a nearby fence. But, after a moment, he noticed its real human hair.
Kreifels ran to the nearest house to call the cops. When policewoman Reggie Fluty reported to the fence to investigate, she made eye contact with a deer who seemed to have been sitting with Matthew all night, providing company and protection. As she approached Matt, the deer acknowledged her, stood, and bounded away.
“He was covered in dried blood all over his head,” said Officer Fluty. “The only place that there wasn’t any blood was what appeared to be where he had been crying down his face—He was so tiny, lying there.”
When Matt arrived at the hospital, he was comatose. His brain stem had been crushed. His skull was contorted beyond recognition. The doctor called Matt’s parents in from Saudi Arabia where his father was working at the time.
“You expect these kinds of injuries from somebody crashing down a hill in a car at 80 miles an hour,” said ER Doctor Cantway, who was on site at Matt’s arrival. “You expect to see these gross injuries from something like that. This horrendous, terrible thing. But you don’t expect to see someone doing this to another person.”
Henderson & McKinney weren’t hard for the police to catch as they got in another fight downtown with two Hispanic boys only hours after attacking Matt—their gun still smeared in his blood. Ironically, McKinney was treated in the hospital from the injuries he received in this second fight, two doors down from Matt, by the same doctor.
“They were both my patients and they were two kids,” said Dr. Cantway I took care of both of them…of both their bodies. And…for a brief moment I wondered if this is how God feels when he looks down at us. How we are all his kids…our bodies…our souls… And I felt a great deal of compassion. For both of them.”
Matthew Shepard died at 12:53 a.m. six days later with his parents and 17-year-old brother, Logan, by his side.
At Matt’s funeral, the family was met with protesters led by extremist Reverend Fred Phelps, wielding hateful signs, claiming that Matt would burn in hell because of his sexuality.
“MATT IN HELL”
“GOD HATES FAGS”
“AIDS CURES FAGS”
Matt’s friends did not ignore this hatred. When they heard Phelps was coming to protest, they dressed as angels with wings long and high enough to block them out, singing Amazing Grace together to muffle the cruel words.
The leader of the angels, Romaine Patterson, had this to say:
“After seeing Fred Phelps protesting at Matthew’s funeral and finding out that he was coming to Laramie for the trial of Russell Henderson, I decided that someone needed to stand toe to toe with this guy and show the differences. And I think at times like this when we’re talking about hatred as much as this nation is right now, that someone needs to show that there is a better way of dealing with that kind of hatred.
“So our idea is to dress up like angels. And so we have designed an angel outfit—for our wings are HUGE, they’re like big ass wings—and there’ll be ten to twenty of us that are angels. And what we’re gonna do is we’re gonna encircle Phelps, and because of our big wings, we are gonna completely block him. So this big ass band of angels comes in. We don’t say a word. We just turn our backs to him and we stand there. And we are a group of people bringing forth a message of peace and love and compassion. And we’re calling it ‘Angel Action.’ Yeah, this twenty-one-year-old little lesbian is ready to walk the line with him. And I knew that my angels were gonna be taking the brunt of everything he had to yell and say. I mean, we were gonna be blocking his view and he was gonna be like pissed off to all hell… So I went out and bought all my angels earplugs.”
The court ruled that McKinney and Henderson were eligible for capital punishment. They left the decision to Matt’s parents, Judy and Dennis, whether to execute the perpetrators for their actions, or jail them with two consecutive life sentences.
This was Dennis’s statement to the court:
“I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. Mr. McKinney, I am going to grant you life, as hard as it is for me to do so, because of Matthew… I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives. May you have a long life and may you thank Matthew every day for it.
“My son died because of your ignorance and intolerance. I can’t bring him back. But I can do my best to see that this never, ever happens to another person or another family again.”
Dennis and Judy Shepard have spent the past twenty years devoted to telling their son’s story and demanding change on both national and international levels.
In 1999, Judy founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation for the advancement of social justice regarding LGBTQ+ people in honour of her son.
Ten years later, President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a federal law that protects anyone who is attacked out of prejudice towards their gender or sexual orientation.
Just last year, Matthew’s ashes were accepted to be interred at the Washington National Cathedral. This means his remains lie among the likes of political leaders, past presidents, Nobel Peace Prize winners, and even Helen Keller and her instructor. Dennis and Judy were wary of burying Matt anywhere else for fear of hateful vandalism.
Throughout these years, Dennis and Judy Shepard have been providing resources to high school students putting on a play called The Laramie Project, from which many of the quotes of this article were sourced. Written in 1999, The Laramie Project is a verbatim play about Matthew Shepard’s murder and the events surrounding it, consisting of a collection of interviews with the people of Laramie involved and affected by the incident.
It is because of this outreach that I had the pleasure of meeting the Shepards. Dennis and Judy accepted an invitation to provide a Q&A session at my old high school in King City, Ontario, following a student performance of The Laramie Project. Their infinite kindness is astounding.
Thank you, Mr. & Mrs. Shepard, for your endurance and relentless efforts to restore empathy to the world. It was an honor to meet you.
You can read more about Matt’s story at www.matthewshepard.org and donate to help demanding equality from everyone who will (and especially those who won’t) listen.
It wasn’t the blows from McKinney’s pistol that killed Matt. It was hate, ignorance, apathy, and prejudice in our society. It is our society. This didn’t just happen twenty years ago. This happens today and continues everywhere. This is something that we not only can change, but must change.