Laramie Resident Reflects On Shepard Anniversary

In 1998, the year that Matthew Shepard died in Laramie, Wyo., University of Wyoming student Jim Osborn was elected president of the school's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) support group. What followed next wasn't quite what Osborn expected: speaking to national news outlets, hosting candlelight vigils within the community and, since then, keeping the legacy of Shepard alive in Laramie. Since graduating, he's become an employee in the school's office of diversity, so he's the right man to ask what has changed in Wyoming, what needs to happen nationwide in regards to gay rights and how we should all respond one decade after the death of Shepard. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Kurt Soller. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why did you first get involved in the LGBT group on campus?
Jim Osborn:
For me, I had been involved in a lot of things in high school—student council, speech and debate, national honor society—so when I came out in college, I started attending meetings for the group and it was a support network. It provided the love and acceptance that I wasn't sure I could get elsewhere. Then, when the group needed leadership, I was put in charge.

Is that how you met Matthew Shepard?
When he got to town he was interested in joining the student group. He attended meetings, but unfortunately, he hadn't been here long and he hadn't been to many meetings [before he was killed]. But I saw him almost everyday on campus hanging out in front of the union or studying.

Within the group, and on campus, what was the reaction to his death?
It was one of grief and shock. Anybody's life that has been touched by violence feels that. But violence like that is not an everyday occurrence here. Nationally, Wyoming was portrayed as a place where frontier justice goes on, and where there were lynch mobs out in the street carrying out justice of that sort. But we don't even have many assaults or murders, because we just don't have that many people living here.

Were you scared for your own safety?
What we learned in Laramie is that safety is a relative term. I've always believed this is a friendly place with good people. But it only takes one or two people to disrupt that safety. There was concern about the possibility of copycat crimes, so we encouraged our members to be cautious and not to go anywhere alone at times.

I imagine that's not the advice you expected to give when you were elected leader of the group.
No, when I was elected, I didn't expect to be on the "Today Show" or BBC. (Laughs.) But I was going to have to be a spokesperson for the community and, whether I liked it or not, a spokesperson for gay people throughout Wyoming.

Given that, what has the media gotten wrong in 10 years?
The state of Wyoming. In a lot of media outlets, Wyoming was portrayed as a place where violence like this was common, a state full of backwater people who carried out frontier justice. And that's not my home; Matt wasn't attacked because he was in Wyoming, he was attacked because, in our country today, we haven't done enough to work against bigotry and violence.

So has Laramie changed at all since 1998?
Yes, but so has the rest of the country. Attitudes of gay and lesbian people are not what they were 10 years ago—whether we're talking about Laramie, or New York or Los Angeles or Podunk Mississippi. We talk more about gay and lesbian people and we also talk more about hate and violence. I don't know how much of that is due to Matt. It's very difficult to say what attitudes were [in Laramie] before Matt was killed, because we didn't always talk about issues enough. If we can't talk about a problem, we can't work to fix it. The civil rights or women's rights movements, for example, didn't happen because people were silent.

There's been some criticism that the town isn't talking about it enough—nor hosting many events—for the 10-year anniversary.
I think it's easy for people to focus on tangibles like laws, policies, memorials or events. Those are important but it is equally important to think about what is in the minds and hearts of people. I think we're moving forward. When I was growing up in high school, there was no such thing as an out gay-student. Now kids are coming out younger and younger.

Children are coming out at younger and younger ages. Is there a risk in coming out too young?
There's a risk for anyone to come out. It's easier today, but I don't think it's easy—there's always a risk associated with coming out. Youths have been the victim of domestic violence when their parents find out, people have lost their jobs, or kids have been evicted from their apartments. Quite frankly, it's not safe for everyone to come out. I am fortunate in that I have the ability to speak out. My friends and family know that I'm gay—that's what happens when you come out on "Dateline."

So what can small towns, like Laramie, do to make it easier?
We can always make it better, but we've been dealing with racism and sexism in our country for decades and yet they still exist. There's no difference in what small-town America has to do versus urban and metropolitan communities. We need to tell our stories and learn more about each other, and view people as people. It often frustrates me when I hear people talk about Matt as an event. Matt was a person. He sat in classrooms and had family and friends who were left behind. And that's important for us to remember.

What's the risk if we don't recognize that?
Unfortunately, it could happen again. Anywhere in the country, too. We all hope violence like this happens less. But until we can eliminate prejudice, we have a responsibility to work against this so that everyone can grow up in a safe environment. This isn't just a Wyoming problem.