Gay College Student Shepard Is Beaten and Murdered Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The shocking beating and murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming led to the gay college student becoming an icon of sorts in the movement for GLBT equality and awareness. In addition to the brutality of his murder, the hate crime had significant religious, legal, political, cultural, and academic ramifications.

Summary of Event

On the night of October 6, 1998, around the time of Gay Awareness Week at the University of Wyoming, Matthew Shepard met two young men at the Fireside Bar, a gay-friendly hangout in downtown Laramie, Wyoming. Aaron McKinney (age twenty-two), Russell Henderson (age twenty-one), and Shepard stepped out of the bar and into a pick-up truck driven by one of the two men. They then drove off with Shepard to another part of town, where McKinney and Henderson brutally beat Shepard with the butt of a .357 magnum pistol, stole his wallet (including his credit card, which provided a first clue to the police), took away his shoes (so that he could not walk away), and tied him to a wooden fence in a remote area, leaving him to die. [kw]Gay College Student Shepard Is Beaten and Murdered (Oct. 6-7, 1998) [kw]College Student Shepard Is Beaten and Murdered, Gay (Oct. 6-7, 1998) [kw]Student Shepard Is Beaten and Murdered, Gay College (Oct. 6-7, 1998) [kw]Shepard Is Beaten and Murdered, Gay College Student (Oct. 6-7, 1998) [kw]Murdered, Gay College Student Shepard Is Beaten and (Oct. 6-7, 1998) Hate crime;murder Laramie, Wyoming, and murder of Matthew Shepard Christian Right;and Matthew Shepard murder[Shepard] Antigay violence;murder of Matthew Shepard[Shepard] [c]Crime;Oct. 6-7, 1998: Gay College Student Shepard Is Beaten and Murdered[2490] [c]Civil rights;Oct. 6-7, 1998: Gay College Student Shepard Is Beaten and Murdered[2490] [c]Government and politics;Oct. 6-7, 1998: Gay College Student Shepard Is Beaten and Murdered[2490] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 6-7, 1998: Gay College Student Shepard Is Beaten and Murdered[2490] [c]Marches, protests, and riots;Oct. 6-7, 1998: Gay College Student Shepard Is Beaten and Murdered[2490] [c]Religion;Oct. 6-7, 1998: Gay College Student Shepard Is Beaten and Murdered[2490] Shepard, Matthew McKinney, Aaron Henderson, Russell Phelps, Fred Shepard, Judy Shepard, Dennis

In freezing temperatures, Shepard soon became comatose. About eighteen hours later, a mountain biker found Shepard, brutalized and near death. (At first glance from a distance, the cyclist thought he had seen a scarecrow.) Shepard was rushed to a hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, and put on life support. He was so badly injured—with severe trauma to his brain stem and massive head fractures—and had such severe hypothermia that doctors were unable to perform surgery. In the early hours of October 12, without regaining consciousness, Shepard died with his parents by his side.

Justice was served swiftly, but under intense media scrutiny and immense political pressure that at times imperiled a fair trial for the defendants. McKinney and Henderson had argued in court that Shepard had propositioned them at the bar, so McKinney’s lawyers tried to advance the “gay panic defense” for their client, but the judge dismissed the attempt because that particular defense was not recognized by Wyoming law. For McKinney, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on two counts of felony murder (he was acquitted of first-degree murder). At the request of Shepard’s parents, McKinney was spared capital punishment and received two consecutive life sentences, without the possibility of appeal or parole, plus a lifelong gag order about the crime, preventing him from profiting by selling his story. Henderson, to avoid the death penalty, plea bargained and was sentenced to life imprisonment.


The cyclist’s image of the scarecrow became a symbolic and vivid reminder that gays and lesbians often are outcasts and objects of derision. That image, coupled with the biblical symbol of a crucifixion evoked by Shepard being tied, beaten and bloody, to a wooden fence, caused a global outcry. Certainly the most enduring detail about Shepard tied to the fence was his completely disfigured face, humanized only by the rivulets of tears from his eyes that had washed away the blood, an image evoked in countless poems, paintings, portraits, and other media. Shepard also made the cover of Time magazine and the front page of The New York Times. Thousands of candlelight vigils were held across the nation; within weeks, Shepard’s parents had received ten thousand letters and seventy thousand e-mails.

Hate-monger Antigay movement reverend Fred Phelps from Topeka, Kansas, whose mantra is “God Hates Fags,” "God Hates Fags"[god hates fags] stood outside Shepard’s funeral with his followers and proclaimed “No Tears for Queers.” "No Tears for Queers"[no tears for queers] Mourners, however, in heavy snow, shielded Shepard’s grieving family and friends with their umbrellas and sang “Amazing Grace.” Phelps returned to Wyoming for McKinney’s murder trial, but once again there were counter-protesters, dressed as white angels with enormous wings.

Phelps later caused more controversy with his plan to erect a monument in Casper, Wyoming (Shepard’s burial site), to celebrate Shepard’s “damnation.” A constitutional battle over free speech ensued. Since a privately sponsored monument to the Ten Commandments sits in the same park, Phelps argued that the site must be opened to his monument, too. In response, the Casper City Council chose to exclude all private displays in the park.

To counter the Christian Right, Shepard’s parents have become vocal activists for GLBT rights and have lobbied in support of hate crimes legislation. Such laws were adopted in several jurisdictions, including Laramie, but failed to pass in many states and at the federal level. In 1999, the Shepards established the Matthew Shepard Foundation (; they also maintain a personal Web-based tribute called Matthew’s Place (, with many links to online resources, including the Matthew Shepard Memorial Quilt.

Matthew Shepard also has become a cultural icon. His recognition stretches throughout American culture, from politics and academics to television, film, music, and theater. Ellen DeGeneres and Barbra Streisand attended a rally on Capitol Hill just days after the incident. Inspired by Shepard’s death, Melissa Etheridge Etheridge, Melissa wrote “Scarecrow” on her album Breakdown and dedicated it in Shepard’s memory. At a concert in Laramie, Elton John John, Elton sang “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” for Shepard. In 2000, MTV aired the drama Anatomy of a Hate Crime, Anatomy of a Hate Crime (television movie) directed by Tim Hunter. Also in 2000, Moisés Kaufman Kaufman, Moisés and the Tectonic Theater Project performed the play The Laramie Project Laramie Project, The (play) across the country. Made into a film that was first shown on HBO in 2002, The Laramie Project has since become a staple of university and community theater. Also in 2002, NBC broadcast a made-for-television movie called The Matthew Shepard Story, Matthew Shepard Story, The (television movie) starring Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston.

Academia also has addressed the Shepard case, with studies of topics including hate crimes and violence, sexuality, and public mourning, and by supporting students through scholarships and other funding sources. Every year, three out gay and lesbian seniors from Iowa high schools are eligible for free tuition at Iowa’s public universities. Weber State University set up a Matthew Shepard scholarship to “promote awareness.” Monmouth University has a fund, supported through the royalties from the book From Hate Crimes to Human Rights (2001), for students who plan to work for “human rights advocacy.” Hate crime;murder Laramie, Wyoming, and murder of Matthew Shepard Christian Right;and Matthew Shepard murder[Shepard] Antigay violence;murder of Matthew Shepard[Shepard]

Further Reading
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    American Behavioral Scientist. Special issues, “Matthew Shepard.” Vols. 45, no. 4, and 46, no. 1 (2002).
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    xlink:type="simple">Connolly, Catherine. “Matthew’s Murderers’ Defense.” Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide 8, no. 1 (2001): 22-26.
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    xlink:type="simple">Delahaye, Alfred N. “The Case of Matthew Shepard (1999).” In Illusive Shadows: Justice, Media, and Socially Significant American Trials, edited by Lloyd Chiasson, Jr. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003.
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    xlink:type="simple">Ingebretsen, Edward J. “Jesus and Matthew: Monsters, Si[g]ns, and Wonders.” International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies 6, no. 4 (October, 2001): 235-249.
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    xlink:type="simple">Loffreda, Beth. Losing Matt Shepard: Life and Politics in the Aftermath of Anti-Gay Murder. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
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    xlink:type="simple">Normand, Sasha. “The Parable of Matthew: Identity Politics, Politics of Desire, and the Politics of Performance.” Journal of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Identity 4, no. 4 (1999): 315-326.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ott, Brian L., and Eric Aoki. “The Politics of Negotiating Public Tragedy: Media Framing of the Matthew Shepard Murder.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 5, no. 3 (Fall, 2002): 483-505.
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    xlink:type="simple">Patterson, Romaine, and Patrick Hinds. The Whole World Was Watching: Living in the Light of Matthew Shepard. New York: Advocate Books, 2005.
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    xlink:type="simple">Swigonski, Mary E., Robin S. Mama, and Kelly Ward, eds. From Hate Crimes to Human Rights: A Tribute to Matthew Shepard. New York: Harrington Park Press/Haworth Social Work Practice Press, 2001. Published simultaneously as a special issue of the Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services 13, nos. 1-2 (2001).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tigner, Amy. “The Laramie Project: Western Pastoral.” Modern Drama 45, no. 1 (Spring, 2002): 138-156.

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Categories: History