On this day twenty-two years ago, October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard was found by a mountain biker just outside Laramie, Wyoming. Matthew had been brutally beaten, pistol whipped, kicked repeatedly, tied to a fence, set on fire, and left to die on a rural street on the cold prairie. The biker thought he was a scarecrow until he got close enough to see better. His face was covered in blood and soot, except for the tracks down his cheeks where the tears had washed it away. He died less than a week later from his wounds. He was only 21.
It’s a murder that shocked the nation and brought attention to the danger that gay folks so frequently face, and many cities and states have since adopted hate crime laws. Matthew became a symbol for the gay rights movement that had begun to sweep the nation.
But Laramie resists.
On my trip west, I stopped at 6344 Pilot Peak Road to visit the spot where the mountain biker had found Matthew. The fence is no longer there. It’s just an open lot now. There are homes sparsely scattered in every direction.
This is what I wrote in my journal:
7:00am Made it to Laramie just as the sun was breaking over the horizon. Matthew’s murder site is barely 1 mile off the interstate in a middle class rural neighborhood.
Got out of the car just off the interstate to make a couple of establishing shots. Immediately felt negative vibes – imagination?
Slowly drove into the neighborhood – 30mph speed limit. Drove past the spot. Just an empty lot with a private property sign on it. The tokens left there a week ago were gone. Made a u-turn in the cul-de-sac at the top of the hill. Got out and made a photo. Drove back down the hill. Got out, made a photo. Parked around the corner, got out and made my last three photos.
As I’m getting back in the car, a police car appears. He follows me as I slowly drive back out to the highway.
The sensation of being watched the entire time was so intense it was nearly physical. I’ve never felt so unwelcome in a place, and yet I never saw another person. I knew that another person in one of the LGBTQ groups I participate in had visited the site the week before and left flowers, yet there was no sign of them.
Twenty one years later, the people of Laramie are still deeply defensive about the idea that Matthew was killed because he was gay. The state of Wyoming has yet to instate any significant policies to counter anti-gay bias or violence. And if you visit, you won’t need to read it in any news article. You’ll be able to feel it in the air.
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