As Matthew Shepard was in a Laramie bar meeting the men who would eventually beat him and leave him for dead, Zach Schneider was two doors away, trying to leave work early.
Schneider worked at StarTek, a customer service call center. On slow nights, his boss would ask who wanted to go home early. The early departures would often walk out and turn left down Second Street, or right out the back door, in search of a few beers at the Fireside Lounge.
That night, Oct. 6, 1998, it was slow at work. Schneider’s boss asked who wanted to go. Hands shot up. OK, the boss said. Give it five more minutes.
If he had left work early, Schneider likely would’ve gone to Fireside. He likely would’ve seen Shepard. The two University of Wyoming students — Schneider a senior, Shepard a freshman — might’ve gone off somewhere to talk, to catch up. They grew up together, had attended Casper’s Crest Hill Elementary and Dean Morgan Junior High together, Schneider a year ahead of Shepard.
Had Shepard needed a ride home that night, Schneider would’ve given him one. They had run into each other just two days before.
But instead, in those five minutes, it grew busy at StarTek, and Schneider had to stay.
“I’ve thought about that night a lot,” he says.
Three days later, he saw the story, hammered across the top of the front page of the student newspaper, the Branding Iron. In that edition, the paper’s editor wrote off Wyoming’s status as the Equality State: “That means nothing to me anymore. We live in a state where a young man was brutally beaten because he is gay.”
“It was shock,” Schneider says of seeing the story. “Oddly enough, it was the first time I heard he was gay.”
Now, Schneider teaches drama at Natrona County High, where Shepard was briefly a student. He’s balding and his beard has whispers of gray. He sits on his stage at the high school, rolling three glue sticks between his fingers and talking about Shepard and Wyoming, the two intertwined in ways that neither would have chosen. His voice rises when he talks about the “gay panic” defense attempted by one of Shepard’s killers and the state’s unwillingness to face its shame, even 20 years later.
“I don’t think Wyoming thinks it has a part in the legacy,” says Schneider, who was born in Sheridan and raised in Casper. “I think on some level you can say, ‘Well these two kids, these two addicts, made a dumb decision,’ but I still hear about kids in the hallway who get snide comments made at them for their sexuality, you know? The fact that (Aaron) McKinney and (Russell) Henderson, their defense was they thought that 12 Wyoming jurors would say, ‘Yeah, I understand, I would do the same thing.’ What does that say about Wyoming?”
“The jury rejected that argument, and I think that’s a testament to Wyoming,” he continues. “But I still think we have a lot of work to do.”
Things have changed, at least here at Natrona County High. There are openly gay and transgender students now, Schneider says. There weren’t any when he was a student 25 years ago. He doesn’t hear homophobic slurs thrown around as casually as he did then, either.
Schneider talks to his students about Shepard, who was goofy and nerdy and tiny and wasn’t into sports and was all heart. He tells students about his friend when he talks about “The Laramie Project” in class. He remembers Shepard as he was, not what he became, what he was turned into by a national media spotlight that latched onto a murdered gay student and turned Laramie into the “gay-killing capital of the world.”
Still, even with the progress Wyoming has seen, it’s not perfect, Schneider says. The state as a whole has grown slower than other states in terms of acceptance. Wyoming still has no hate crime legislation. There is no memorial to Shepard in the Natrona County School District, and, outside the prerogatives of individual teachers, he has no place in the curriculum.
Wyoming won’t have the discussions about its culpability in the murder and the hypocrisy of its supposed “live and let live” lifestyle, Schneider says. It continues to ignore, to move past, to convince itself that it was a one-off or a drug deal gone bad.
“I get the sense growing up in Wyoming that we don’t like to talk about our shame. We’re a proud people. Wyoming is full of very humble but proud people,” Schneider says. “I think Matthew has a bigger legacy outside the state of Wyoming than he does inside. Wyoming is resistant to change.”
Schneider attributes that national impact partially to Shepard looking so much like someone you would know.
“Matt, he looks like the kid you grew up with,” Schneider says, then repeats. “He looks like the kid you grew up with.”
Then a pause. This is part of the dissonance for people like Schneider who knew the man before he became a martyr: Shepard the friend from Casper versus Shepard the icon.
“He was that kid I grew up with.”