The nation — and the city of Laramie — has become more accepting of gays and lesbians in the 10 years since a gay University of Wyoming student was beaten, lashed to a lonely fence and left to die, his mother said Saturday.
"We've learned a lot, we've talked a lot; we do it in public forums now," Judy Shepard said at a ceremony dedicating a bench to her son, Matthew Shepard. "So it's a wonderful tribute to Matt that these kinds of things are discussed."
Shepard died Oct. 12, 1998, five days after he was found brutally beaten and tied to the fence outside Laramie. The two men who killed him are serving life sentences in prison.
The crime triggered nationwide sympathy and revulsion and brought a re-examination of attitudes toward gays.
Shepard's parents established a foundation named after their son. Its stated goal is to "replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance." It also helps young gay people find a safe environment.
Dennis Shepard said his son loved the university, Laramie and Wyoming.
"I cannot say enough about what the university has done since that day to take care of the students here and to open their arms and their hearts to the rest of their country of the lessons learned," he said.
"They are the leaders. And I think the lessons that were learned at that time helped in these unfortunate incidents that we've had since then, like Virginia Tech."
On April 16, 2007, a gunman fatally shot 32 people in a dorm and a classroom at the Virginia college before killing himself.
University of Wyoming President Tom Buchanan said his college has established an annual social justice symposium named after Shepard; created a resource center to support gays, lesbians, bisexuals and others; and developed a center for social justice to research and expose sources of inequity in society.
"Through our actions, we will continue to demonstrate that diversity and inclusion are core values at UW," Buchanan said. "Just as we live with the loss of Matt, we live every day at UW committed to the ideal that we treat all with dignity and respect. A memorial bench can serve as a reminder of that commitment, but we must continue to work hard to make it a reality."
But Judy Shepard noted that Wyoming has yet to enact hate crime legislation, as other states have.
"I regret that," she said. "We still have some negative legislation attempts and discussion and those kind of things. But I'm confident that as the Equality State we can move forward, set an example and really make a statement about what it means to be equal to everybody else."
'Continues to make a difference'
Dennis Shepard said he hopes people enjoy the bench, which sits outside the university's arts and sciences building with potted plants and flowers on either side. A plaque affixed to the bench, paid for by the foundation, reads: "Matthew Wayne Shepard Dec. 1, 1976-Oct. 12, 1998. Beloved son, brother, and friend. He continues to make a difference. Peace be with him and all who sit here."
"The words that we have written there are heartfelt," Dennis Shepard said. "Matt would have been the first to say so. And as far as we're concerned, with the words here, he's the last to say so."