'Laramie Project' Team Returns 10 Years Later

In returning to Laramie, Wyo., 10 years after the murder of Matthew Shepard, the pressing question for all of us was: how has the town changed since 1998? But soon a different question arose: how do we measure that change?

On the state level no hate crime legislation has passed; the fence where Matthew Shepard was murdered has been dismantled; the Fireside Bar where Matthew met his killers has been renamed; and the University of Wyoming still has yet to grant domestic partner benefits to its gay and lesbian faculty and staff. And when you ask of the people of Laramie how has the town has changed, many say, "We've moved on."

"Moved on to what?" asks Reggie Fluty, the policewoman who was the first to arrive at the fence where Matthew was tied. "If you don't want to look back, fine. But what are we moving towards?"

Certainly the university has taken several concrete actions to promote inclusiveness: they've added gay and lesbian study classes to the curriculum, created a resource center for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and permanently renamed the Social Justice Symposium after Matthew Shepard. They've also recently joined Matthew's mom, Judy Shepard, in memorializing Matthew on campus. (Judy is the executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation.)

As for the rest of the town, Shepard's former academic adviser Jon Peacock says, "I think when you're so close to an event like this you become more sensitized. You start to pay more attention to those issues." Detective Sergeant Rob Debree, the lead investigator in Shepard's murder, adds, "I think overall, there's just more acceptance." Debree became a forceful national advocate for Federal Hate Crime legislation alongside Officer Dave O'Malley as a result of this murder.

"The fact that cops like DeBree and O'Malley, law officers in positions of real power, are committed to gay and lesbian people and their protection, that should be construed as concrete change," says Beth Loffreda, author of the book, "Losing Matthew Shepard." "You won't find that in a statute or in a public monument to Matt, but that's real and meaningful change."

A real cause for concern, however, is the emergence in Laramie of a narrative that has gained many proponents in recent years: one that states that Shepard's murder by two local residents, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, was only "a robbery gone bad" or "a drug-fueled murder" and not a hate crime. "That's nonsense," says Fluty. "All you have to do is look at the evidence." O'Malley, lead investigator of the Laramie Police Department agrees, "I'm convinced that these guys killed Matt because he was gay."

Debree of the Sheriff's department adds: "We went in depth reviewing [the murderers'] blood for any kind of drugs or anything to that effect. There was nothing." The fact that this was a hate crime was decisively proved at the trial when in excerpts of McKinney's confession, the jury heard him tell DeBree: "[Shepard] put his hand on my leg. ... I told him I'm not a f---ing faggot" before beginning to brutally beat Matthew Shepard.

Catherine Connolly, the first openly gay professor at the university, also takes issue with this willful ignoring of the facts: "This distortion of history, this is what kids 18, 19 years old think now. It's devastating to us. This is our history."

So why has this distortion of the truth become so prevalent? One hypothesis is that because Laramie was portrayed in the media as a backward town where hatred and bigotry were rampant, forcing the citizens to question their identity as an idyllic community, a "good place to raise your children." "And when we have a theory about who we are," says Laramie resident Jeffrey Lockwood, "and the data goes against that theory, we throw out the data rather than adjust the theory. We are hardwired as human beings not to contemplate our own complicity in things."

Yet there are many people who found in this murder an opportunity to reflect deeply about the role that the culture and values of Laramie played in the crime. "This whole thing forced us to look at our warts," says Dr. Don Cantway, the physician who treated Matthew's injuries. "To look at our bigotry, the hatreds, the intolerance that exist here."

These two stances, denial and self-reflection, have divided the town. "This is where I choose to live," insists Jonas Slonaker, a gay man who chose to come out after Shepard's murder, "and this is a state that always votes Republican and is pretty conservative. So there'll be a lot of resistance [to change]. It might be a situation where those rights will come from a federal level down before it comes to the state level."

But nationally, the situation regarding gay rights legislation mirrors Wyoming's. In 2007, the Matthew Shepard Act passed in both the House and the Senate but the legislation never made it out of Congress—because of a Bush veto threat and the bill's attachment to a defense authorization measure.

Still, shifts are occurring: Wyoming's Governor Dave Freudenthal, says, "If you really believe in that Western 'live and let live' [philosophy] then you wouldn't have homophobic violence. So there's a contradiction. We tolerate an awful lot of violence in this state and we have to look at that." In 2005, the neighboring town of Casper elected a gay man as mayor and professor Connolly is running for a State House seat in the coming election. In addition, the faculty at the university continues to fight for same-sex partner benefits.

Measuring change is not an exact science: the markers can be elusive or blurry, yet no less meaningful. Peacock says, "I think it does a great disservice to the power of the story around Matthew's death to measure it by whether there's been definitive or quantifiable change like a law passed. We know that there has been so much qualitative and transformational change. So I think it does a real disservice to the story to measure it that way. I just think that's too thin of a measure."