Jason Marsden was the politics reporter for the Casper Star-Tribune in 1998. He penned this column the day Matthew Shepard died. For this project, we asked him to write another piece reflecting on the event and his words 20 years later.

Twenty years have escaped us since the mournful, fearful, aching days that surrounded Matthew Shepard’s abduction, beating and death on a lonesome patch east of Laramie.

Their passage, strictly speaking, changed nothing. But what we who cared, and grieved, and took inspiration, each chose to do, person by person, has changed a great deal.

I walked into the Casper Star-Tribune newsroom on Monday morning, October the 12th, 1998, a little late for work, carrying with me a dizzy, dreary feeling. It had been nearly a week since the sickening arrival of news of my friend, found bound to a buck fence and mortally wounded.

The slow march of the days brought Matt Shepard’s story to millions, here and abroad, and had drawn in countless reporters, camera operators and correspondents, from Japanese public television to Agence France Presse, from Channel 30-something in Connecticut to the local paper in Longmont. Each was seeking some unique truth of what was unfolding in hate-scarred Wyoming — that far-away, misunderstood frontier.

By day and by night I dialed and dialed the toll-free hospital hotline dedicated to updated medical reports on Matt’s much-hoped-for, much-doubted recovery. I dialed the number from memory on pay phones, on touch-tones, on a clunky CST-issued car phone, often re-hearing the same status again and again. Unconscious. Critical. Uncertain.

At some point on Sunday night, between a few beers in mostly somber quiet with fellow Star-Trib staff at the old Wonder Bar, I excused myself to punch in the 11 digits on the pay phone in the back hall. Yet again, I heard, there had been no change. I remember thinking: Well, at least he is hanging on. Maybe there is hope.

I did not dial the hotline Monday morning.

The news I learned at my desk of Matthew Shepard’s death in those overnight hours came as both a foregone conclusion and a terrible shock. A surge of despair, of pathos, of sympathy for all the lives destroyed by this violent act, tugged and prodded at me, my hands sweating, my eyes strangely dry. It all became clear: Matt would forever be remembered as a victim, and his kindness, warmth, mischievous humor, political passions, hopes for a better world and weariness of the one we were stuck with, would all be forgotten, or indeed, never known, replaced by a cipher, a totem, a mark on history.

I could not bear that thought. And so I set out to eulogize the promising young fellow Wyoming 20-something gay man I had only been privileged to know for less than two years.

I felt strongly that I must also come out to those whom I had not, including neighbors, colleagues, sources, relatives, the governor, my teachers, my landlord and, most of all, the countless strangers.

I’ve said since then that if you do something principled beware because it will follow you around. And it did. In time I came to see that the column I wrote in grief and in defiance began a chapter in my life that continues today, one of advocacy for those who have not yet achieved comfort in their own skin and equality in their own society.

I wondered aloud in that 1998 column if we could one day overcome “the ancient malevolence” against people with an uncommon sexual orientation and recover the openness and love of others that are the ultimate root of the branching human tree. I was hopeful because, in the end, there is really no other sane answer to horror.

You and I, we have gone far together, gay and straight, trans and cis, representing our many races, our many creeds, our many homelands. We sit together, we serve together, we marry together, and we band together in greater harmony than at any time, so far beyond the wildest imaginings of our farther-flung ancestors who first formed clans and bonds.

And yet. We arrive now at a time when our very trust and generosity toward one another feels fraying, neglected and forlorn. The corrosion has had a few years to work, and it must be acknowledged and opposed.

It is now plainly a political and social fashion to cleave apart our fragile ties. If something terrible has happened, it surely is the work of those people, those others, who are, after all, so different from ourselves. Why should we and our liberty suffer to advance the equality of those who dispute how we see the world? Why wouldn’t we discredit and disparage them, at all costs, denigrate the worldview of our ideological, political and philosophical adversaries?

There is no doubt those insidious arguments are hard at work on our minds and our souls. I implore you: Resist this impulse. It serves us poorly.

One day in 1998 I prayed a very singular prayer that the days when darkness was ascendant would remain behind us, and that we could look ahead to days when light tore through the gloom and the dawn crept a little further ahead with each renewal of the cycle.

I cannot say we have seized control of that great and timeless conflict — yet. But we have never been more equipped, more empowered or, I hope, more urgently motivated to win that struggle, so long as we choose to — and we act in tandem to — at last, end our hatred of the unknown and embrace the differences that ultimately unite us.

Our future demands our cooperation. We need and deserve that future. Please join in building it.

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Jason Marsden is a former Casper Star-Tribune reporter and the current executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation.


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