Guest Opinion: After 25 years, Matthew Shepard's legacy still lives

  • Wednesday October 18, 2023
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Matthew Shepard. Photo: Courtesy the Matthew Shepard Foundation
Matthew Shepard. Photo: Courtesy the Matthew Shepard Foundation

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard. On October 6, 1998, Shepard was beaten, tortured and left to die, bound to a fence in a remote Wyoming field, not far from the small town of Laramie. He was found and taken to a hospital where he died from his wounds six days later.

Suspects Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were arrested shortly thereafter. They were charged, tried, and convicted of first-degree murder. Both received two consecutive life sentences.

The case received national attention. It also proved a turning point for the LGBTQ rights movement once it was learned that Shepard was gay, and that his assailants were motivated by anti-gay hatred. The case energized the LGBTQ movement, assisted by Shepard's parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, who became powerful spokespeople against hate crimes. This eventually led to the passage of the nation's first federal legislation for hate crimes in 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was signed by then-President Barack Obama.

The LGBTQ movement was also propelled by another powerful voice making its way through the country's cultural zeitgeist, a play called "The Laramie Project," created by members of a New York-based theater collective called the Tectonic Theater Project.

In the aftermath of Shepard's death, LGBTQ communities nationwide began to stand up in solidarity, mourning, and action. Likewise, the members of Tectonic felt called to action. Led by the company's head writers, Moisés Kaufman and Leigh Fondakowski, a total of 10 members of Tectonic made the journey to Laramie to interview residents.

They were initially concerned that the townspeople would be skittish, given the amount of scrutiny by the national media they'd endured in the wake of the murder. However, once people learned that the Tectonic group was not journalists, but artists looking to piece together a true story, they became trusting and extremely forthcoming. The result was over 200 interviews and over 400 hours of audio recordings. Once transcribed, the writers spent many hours cutting the raw wordage down to the form that became "The Laramie Project."

The play held its world premiere in Denver on February 26, 2000. The cast was composed of the Tectonic members who had first journeyed to Laramie, portraying the people they themselves had interviewed. Six weeks later, the play opened off-Broadway, where it was rapturously received.

The New York Times, in its review, wrote, "What Mr. Kaufman and his team are after is less a portrait of any person than one of the ethos of a place. In the deliberate, simple formality of its staging, in which eight radiantly clean-scrubbed performers embody 60 different people against Robert Brill's bare-bones set, 'Laramie' often brings to mind 'Our Town.' ... But if 'The Laramie Project' nods conspicuously to Wilder, this play is 'Our Town' with a question mark, as in 'Could this be our town?' There are repeated variations by the citizens of Laramie on the statement 'It can't happen here,' followed immediately by 'And yet it has.'"

Two years later, a film adaptation of the play was released, which resulted in a massive surge of interest in the play. Between January 2002 and June 2003, there were over 440 productions of "The Laramie Project" in high schools, colleges, and amateur theater groups all across the United States.

In the years since, "The Laramie Project" continues to be an invaluable tool in teaching communities, particularly young people, of the consequences of hatred and bigotry. There continues to be countless productions every year by regional theater, amateur groups, universities, and schools; there have even been reports of some schools making it a part of their 11th or 12th grade reading curriculum.

One of the more poignant results of the various school productions is that Matthew's mother, Judy, frequently flies out to attend student and youth productions. When asked why she does it, she refers to the show's Playbill and says, "Well, I put Matthew here in my pocket. I know that he's there, and then I can go home."

Clearly, Shepard's memory and legacy survives after 25 years, and will continue to do so. But then, the debates sparked by his death, and the hatred that caused his death, are also still both alive. Speaking to Playbill magazine, writer Kaufman says, "I often get asked, why does it continue to be relevant? And I feel that it's unfortunate that [Matthew Shepard] continues to be so relevant. We look forward to the day when it ceases to be relevant, but we're still engulfed in a lot of the same arguments."

One aspect of Shepard's legacy, in addition to the ongoing life of "The Laramie Project," is the Matthew Shepard Foundation, founded by his parents. According to its website, "The Matthew Shepard Foundation's mission is to amplify the story of Matthew Shepard to inspire individuals, organizations and communities to embrace the dignity and equality of all people. Our work is an extension of Matt's passion to foster a more caring and just world. We share his story and embody his vigor for civil rights to change the hearts and minds of others to accept everyone as they are."

For more information about the Matthew Shepard Foundation, visit For more information about the Tectonic Theater Project, visit

Gary L. Day (he/him), a gay man, is a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia.

The State of California offers help for victims or witnesses to a hate crime or hate incident. This resource is supported in whole or in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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