Back in 1998, Matthew Shepard was a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who was beaten and left for dead on a fence outside of Laramie because he was gay. His death sparked outrage across the country as people demanded more rights for the LGBTQ community.
25 years later, Matthew’s mother, Judy Shepard says the climate for LGBTQ people has not gotten better.
Judy, speaking to Katie Couric in an exclusive interview for NBC’s Today Show, lamented the current state of America when it comes to LBGTQ rights, saying, “They’re still being denied basic rights, the community is, and the absolute outward showing of hate again, it’s just infuriating to me.”
Just days before his death, the college student attended a resource group meeting to plan a Coming Out Day event. After the meeting was over, he went to a bar. According to his Matthew’s dad, Dennis, he met two men who pretended to be gay and lured him out of the bar. The men took him outside of town, promising a party. They beat him into unconscientiousness and left him draped over a fence. Someone found him the next morning, still tied to the fence, and called the cops. Matthew died in the hospital days later. His death drew national attention, causing lawmakers to fight for and get hate-crime legislation passed, which provides additional penalties for committing crimes based on race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.
People, including members of the LGBTQ community, were hoping that the days of persecution and intolerance would be over.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Over the last year, Republican state representatives across the country have introduced more than 500 bills targeting the LGBTQ community, and 84 of them have become law, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Bills proposing to ban transgender student athletes from playing sports on the teams that align with their gender identities, or prohibit minors from accessing certain transition-related medical care.
Judy blames the recent increase in aggressive legislation against the LGBTQ community in part to President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, which she says made it more acceptable to publicly disparage minorities. She compares the surge of proposed legislation to efforts in 2004 to pass a federal ban on same-sex marriage.
“All those who were fighting against the gay community, this is their last gasp,” Judy says. “They know they’ve lost the war, but this battle is just the last, most vicious attack on the community … It’s already over. That’s what they don’t understand. They’re fighting a losing battle.”
Last year, five people were killed at a shooting at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado. In August, 28-year-old dancer O’Shae Sibley was fatally stabbed while dancing at a gas station in New York City, in what police later said was a hate crime. That same month, Laura Ann Carleton, a California business owner and mother of nine, was fatally shot over a Pride flag she displayed outside of her store.
Judy says that it is important for her and her husband to continue to share their son’s story and the tragedy that happened outside a small town in Wyoming 25 years later, “so people understand that it’s still happening and they have the power to make the change.”
Dennis said he has mixed feelings about continuing to speak publicly about Matthew and his death a quarter-century later.
“We figured we only had a couple, three years and then go on to something else, that this wouldn’t still be going on, and we still have the same problem,” he said. The couple founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an LGBTQ rights nonprofit, in 1998.
Judy, looking angry and exasperated says, “I’m so tired of being angry.”