Laramie Project: Tackling Hate Crime

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by Jamison Maeda

Fifteen years ago this week, a gay college student in Laramie Wyoming named Matthew Shepard was robbed, beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead. His attackers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson stole Matthew’s credit card, his shoes, and pistol-whipped him. At their trial, McKinney’s ex-girlfriend said the two men “pretended they were gay to get [Shepard] into the truck and rob him.”

Matthew remained tied to the fence for 18 hours until a passing cyclist who initially mistook Matthew for a scarecrow called authorities. A sheriff’s deputy arrived shortly after to find Matthew’s face covered in blood except for where two thin streams of tears ran down his face and washed it away.

Matthew’s injuries were too severe for doctors to operate and he died at 12:53am on October 12. He was 21 years old.

But Matthew’s legacy lives on in the form of The Matthew Shepard James Byrd, Jr Hate Crime Prevention Act which gives federal authorities greater power to investigate and prosecute hate crimes that local authorities choose not to pursue. (James Byrd, Jr. was an African-American man who was murdered by white supremacists in 1998. He was dragged behind a truck for 3 miles before he died and his body was dumped in front of an African-American cemetery.)

A play about Matthew’s murder called The Laramie Project premiered in 2009 and continues to be performed at high schools and colleges around the world as a teaching method on battling homophobia.

Unfortunately, The Laramie Project was recently in the news when a performance at the University of Mississippi was disrupted by the shouting of antigay slurs such as “fag” by approximately two dozen students in the audience.

Matthew’s mother, Judy Shepard wrote a book called “The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed.” Mrs. Shepard says “America prides itself on being the land of equal opportunity and intellectually and emotionally we all know that’s just not true here. We have so much work left to do. Please don’t forget that.”