Remembering Matthew Shepard

Posted: Sunday, October 12, 2008

It was October 1998, and I was new to Juneau. I had grown up in Wyoming, and for a week my attention was squarely on my old Wyoming community. It was as though the world was turned upside down. Word broke that a student from my former school, the University of Wyoming in Laramie, had been brutally murdered. He had been beaten, tied to a split rail fence, pistol-whipped, and left to die in near freezing temperatures.

It was shocking, it was sickening, and it left people wondering, "Why?"

For six days I watched the news and prayed for his recovery, but on Oct. 12, 1998, Matthew Shepard's body finally gave out and he died. During that week, we discovered the reason that Shepard was beaten and left to die: He was gay.

Shepard's brutal murder had a chilling affect on everyone, but it struck really close for some of us. How could someone hate this kid, just for being who he was? I wanted desperately to believe Wyoming was better than this. Surely the world was better than this? Shepard was the victim of this crime, but because this type of ugly hatred reared its head in our community, many of us were left with emotional scars that may never heal.

It has been 10 years since he was killed. Although I had moved to Juneau before he was killed, I had deep roots in the Wyoming community. Juneau is my home, it's where I live, work, and with my partner raise our two little girls. Yet, as I compare the world then to the world now, it saddens me to realize that so little has changed. Today, we see little alarm or public outpouring to stop this type of bias-motivated crime, often these crimes making no more than the local evening news. Have we grown immune in the 10 years since Shepard was killed?

Anti-gay and anti-transgender hate crimes are still pervasive in our country: On Feb. 12, a 15-year-old boy in Oxnard, Calif., Lawrence "Larry" King, admitted to classmates that his innocent Valentine crush was directed toward a male classmate. The next day, the boy Larry had a crush on came to school and shot Larry in the back of the head. Larry was killed because he was gay.

In July of this year, 18-year-old Angie Zapata returned to her home in Greeley, Colo., to find a man who she had previously dated waiting for her. According to that man's story, he became enraged when he found out Angie was transgender, and beat her to death with a fire extinguisher. In September, police reported that the murderer said, "All gay things should die."

And we are not immune in Alaska: Young gay, lesbian, bi and transgender Alaskans have to ask themselves every day whether it's safe to be honest about who they are. As lesbian mothers, my partner and I have to worry about how safe the community is for our daughters. Will they be targeted for harassment or worse simply for who their parents are?

It was wrong for Shepard to be so brutally murdered, and it is wrong for kids like Larry and Angie to still be subject to this type of crime today!

In 1998, I hoped the horror and shock of Shepard's murder would help stop this type of anti-gay crime. To this day, the image of a split rail fence sends chills down my spine, as I think of Shepard spending some of his last hours, alone, tied to one in the Wyoming countryside. As we remember him, now a decade later, I call upon my fellow Alaskans to join me. As part of a new organization, Alaskans Together for Equality can make sure that we no longer tolerate this type of anti-gay bias. Alaskans Together, we can make this world a better place for all our children.

• Leslie Wood is a Juneau resident.

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