Who is Matthew Shepard to the Casper students who sit where he did 25 years ago?
He is an event, says a gay junior at Natrona County High.
He went to the University of Wyoming, and he was murdered because he was gay, adds a bisexual student who wasn’t aware Shepard attended the Casper high school for a time.
He’s eye-opening evidence of how “shitty” the world is, says Abby, a student at Kelly Walsh who says she’s unsure of her sexuality.
Two of the three students spoke to the Star-Tribune on condition of anonymity. Abby asked that her last name not be used.
All say they had learned little about Shepard in classes, and two are disappointed he wasn’t more present in the curriculum of the school district he attended for most of his life.
“It’s kind of disheartening and alarming that we don’t learn about things that are pertinent to American history,” Abby says. “The LGBTQ community had to fight for certain rights, and they’ve been fighting all the way through (their) existence, basically, and in my opinion, that’s something that’s shaped America into what it is right now.”
“Nobody really discredits the civil rights movement because we learn about it,” the junior adds. “We know Martin Luther King, he marched, he did all of this, and he was killed for what he did. But we don’t really learn about Stonewall, it comes up for 30 minutes maybe. You don’t really learn about the AIDS epidemic, you don’t really learn that President (Ronald) Reagan didn’t do anything for years and hundreds of men died because of it.”
The students live in a post-Shepard Wyoming in more ways than one: The junior described how rapper Macklemore’s “Same Love” and social media helped him understand his sexuality.
But in a crucial way, it feels like the same state. Abby and the NC junior said they thought a similar incident could happen again. Learning of Shepard’s death opened their eyes to the danger they faced as members of the LGBTQ community.
“The communities I had found myself in were all very open and accepting and, like, my parents and stuff weren’t openly against it,” the junior said, “and nobody I knew were against it except for kids in school. Other than that, I had never truly seen hatred personified, and reading about that and reading about the brutality of it and the reading about the aftermath, just what it did to not only Casper, not only to Wyoming, but to the country as a whole, really kind of made me realize that not everybody in the world is so accepting.”
Abby describes wondering if she should remain quiet about her sexuality until she left Wyoming for college, and the daunting mental bind that would demand.
“It’s kind of like being trapped in your own little straitjacket ... that you don’t have the padlock for, but you put yourself in,” she says, calm and thoughtful.
But she had only praise for Kelly Walsh, for former Principal Brad Diller and his replacement, Mike Britt. It’s a community where the little things matter less, she explains.
The two Natrona County High students had fewer positive things to say for their school. The student says people cough the word “dyke” at her, and her girlfriend was surrounded in a hallway and told “how disgusting (she) was.”
“Toward sexuality, it’s just straight down the middle,” the student says. “Some people will be completely accepting and others will be just — just complete terrible people toward you.”
The junior agrees. He says he considered hiding his sexuality until he left Wyoming because of the bullying he expected to face, but he realized “that would’ve ended horribly.”
But still, the deeper question: Has Shepard and his brutal murder left an impression here, in these hallways and among these students?
“He has a legacy and it has been here, but we don’t learn about him, so not very many people know about it,” Abby says. “So I feel like it’s a hidden legacy.”
She thinks about how to phrase it. It’s like that saying, a tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear it.
“Another voice that’s lost in the crowd.”