by Rachelle stefanski
It was in my final semester as an undergraduate student at Elmhurst College, Elmhurst, IL, when I saw the news story about Matthew Shepard. He was six months older than me. Matthew Shepard’s story rocked my very being. I did not feel safe. I feared for the safety of my partner and our friends. As I entered the workforce after graduation, I stayed closeted to most people, including my first employer.
Matthew was a student at the University of Wyoming. On the night of October 6, 1998, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson met Matthew at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, Wyoming. They gained Matthew’s trust and the three decided that McKinney and Russell would give him a ride home. They drove their vehicle to a remote area, where they proceeded to rob Matthew, pistol-whip him, torture him, and tie him to a fence, where they left him to die. Eighteen hours later Matthew was discovered tied to the fence and barely alive by a Police Officer, his face covered in blood with clear streaks from his tears. He was taken to the hospital where he remained in a coma until he died on October 12, 1998. He was 21 years old.
Henderson wanted to avoid the death penalty and pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping. He received two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. McKinney’s case went to trial where he was convicted of felony murder, aggravated robbery and kidnapping. Before the jury could decide his sentence, he agreed to a deal which allowed him to avoid the death penalty. He is serving two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole as well.
Matthew, who was openly gay, was described by his father as “an optimistic and accepting young man who had a special gift of relating to almost everyone. He was the type of person who was very approachable and always looked to new challenges. Matthew had a great passion for equality and always stood up for the acceptance of people’s differences.”
The terrible tragedy of Matthew Shepard’s death started a conversation in the United States about what it means to treat others with respect, no matter their identity or background. He inspired many documentaries and films, music and written works. During the 2012-2013 NBA season, openly gay NBA basketball player Jason Collins wore the jersey number ‘98’ in honor of Matthew.
After her son’s murder, Matthew’s Mother, Judy Shepard, became a prominent LGBT rights activist. Dennis and Judy Shepard established the Matthew Shepard Foundation in memory of their son. The organization offers education, outreach, and advocacy programs online, and through companies, schools, and individuals. The foundation also lobbied for local, statewide, and federal hate crimes prevention legislation.
On October 22, 2009, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which President Obama signed into law. The measure expanded the 1969 United States Federal Hate Crime Law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
Matthew’s story stayed with me over the years. His courage and openness in life moved me, and continues to do so to this day. I began volunteering for Youth Outlook (formerly Questioning Youth Council), a Chicago-area organization that provides drop-in centers for youth in the LGBT community. I became empowered and more open about my own identity. After I moved to the Seattle area, I worked with Early Childhood and Elementary students, focusing on Peace Education and teaching them the importance of kindness and giving back to the community.
Most importantly, Matthew’s story, along with so many other tragic stories, inspired me to transition into a career in law, becoming a Legal Assistant for the Civil Rights Justice Center, PLLC and beginning my journey in law school.
If you would like to learn more about your rights or believe that you have been discriminated against please visit the Civil Rights Justice Center located at 2150 N. 107th Street in Seattle Washington or visit our website at civilrightsjusticecenter.com