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Matthew Shepard's hometown still contemplating a way forward, 20 years after his death

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Matthew Shepard's hometown still contemplating a way forward, 20 years after his death
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Jane Ifland didn’t know Matthew Shepard. He wasn’t a relative or a friend, a co-worker or a former classmate. To the best of her knowledge, the Casper activist said, the two never crossed paths.

But on Oct. 16, 1998, she was among the hundreds of mourners who attended his funeral at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Casper.

As she stood Sunday in the shadow of St. Mark’s, Ifland explained she wanted to show support for Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming whom two men brutally beat and left to die on a fence post outside Laramie.

The murder — now one of the most notorious hate crimes in America’s history — caught the attention of the Westboro Baptist Church, which sent some of its followers to Shepard’s funeral to protest the LGBTQ community.

“That all happened over there,” said Ifland, her brown eyes tearing up as she pointed in the direction of a grassy square park across the street from St. Mark’s.

The park and its surrounding streets were quiet and mostly empty Sunday afternoon. A handful of children played on a swingset as church bells rang out the time.

It was a different scene on the day of Shepard’s funeral, Ifland said. Television stations sent mobile crews, and police officers were separating the Westboro protesters from counterprotesters.

Ifland said she doesn’t recall the exact shouts or insults being hurled; that part has faded over time. But the weather is ingrained in her memory.

“The rain was falling in globules — it was like tears,” Ifland said. “There was no lightning or thunder, just tears soaking everything.”

The rain turned to sleet, then snow, and tree branches began cracking and breaking under the weight, Ifland said.

She recalled thinking it was as if the city itself was “gnashing its teeth.”

Ifland said the community was somber in the following months. Residents grieved for Shepard, a Casper native who attended Natrona County High School.

“There was mourning,” she said. “There still is.”

That grief eventually sparked a conversation about how a community should fight back against hate.

“It was a difficult time for Wyoming,” current Casper Mayor Ray Pacheco said. “Life was lost in this brutal murder, and we really had to talk about what kind of a community we wanted to be.”

Two decades later, that discussion is still going on.

***

Last year, the local chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) approached the Casper City Council and asked its members to pass a nondiscrimination resolution. Resolutions lack the teeth of an ordinance, but the advocacy group’s representatives said it would be a meaningful gesture of goodwill.

After months of discussion, the resolution passed 6 to 3 during the Council’s Feb. 20 meeting.

For Pacheco, it wasn’t an easy decision. The self-described devout Catholic said he researched the issue, prayed about it and sought input from many constituents.

The mayor ultimately concluded that it was not overstepping the bounds of government, or going against the teachings of Jesus Christ, to state that LGBTQ residents deserve equal access to jobs, housing, health care and other services.

“First and foremost, religion and faith are about caring for others…” Pacheco said, moments before voting to approve the measure Feb. 20. “I choose to believe that Christ wept as our brothers and sisters were murdered that night at the (LGBTQ) club shooting in Orlando. I also choose to believe that Christ sat next to Matthew Shepard in the cold Laramie wind as he lay dying.”

Residents on both sides of the issue packed the Council’s chambers the night of the vote for a passionate, three-hour debate. Janet de Vries was among those in attendance.

“I was on pins and needles,” she said as she removed her rainbow-print scarf and settled into a sofa Monday at Metro Coffee Co. in downtown Casper.

De Vries has lived in Casper for decades. She and her partner, Leanne, tried to keep their relationship secret for years. The couple feared Leanne would lose her job with the Natrona County School District if she came out, according to de Vries.

When the couple spotted any of Leanne’s co-workers at the mall or grocery store, de Vries said she quickly darted the other way. Other times, Leanne would introduce her as a friend.

It was nerve-wracking and made their relationship seem dishonest, she recalled.

“I don’t think people understand how we (in the LGBTQ community) lived secret lives,” she said. “They don’t understand the stress we lived under.”

The couple no longer hides its relationship. Leanne retired a few years ago, and society as a whole is generally more accepting, de Vries said.

But she said it was still meaningful to hear the city’s leaders declare that LGBTQ citizens have the right to exist, the right to hold jobs or rent apartments, just like any other taxpaying citizen.

It was an important step, said de Vries, who hopes a statewide ordinance is on the horizon.

“We don’t want to be known as the place where the gay university student was murdered,” she said. “Yet we don’t pass any anti-discrimination laws at the state level. It’s disappointing for me, and it’s a disgrace for the entire state.”

***

Casper isn’t the only municipality in the state that’s enacted a nondiscrimination measure to support LGBTQ citizens.

In the last several years, Gillette, Douglas and Cheyenne also passed nondiscrimination resolutions that referenced the LGBTQ community. Meanwhile, Laramie and Jackson established ordinances, which offer legal protections for those who are discriminated against due to their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

Casper Vice Mayor Charlie Powell said this should send a strong message to state lawmakers that it’s time for a statewide statute.

Powell never had any qualms about supporting PFLAG’s request. The psychologist said he’s seen how discrimination can affect mental health.

One of his LGBTQ patients was forced to leave his parents’ home; another was banned from attending his own brother’s wedding. The exclusion and the insults take a heavy toll, said Powell, who firmly believes this contributes to the higher-than-average suicide rates in the LGBTQ community.

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Charlie Powell

Vice Mayor Charlie Powell, seen here in January 2017.

“You can’t pass a law to force people to change their way of thinking; that’s obviously true,” Powell said at the Feb. 20 meeting. “But social norms can and do change. They change when people in positions of leadership take a stand.”

Powell said last week that he doesn’t believe Wyoming deserves its reputation as a place that has disdain for equality. A small segment of the population may be intolerant, but that’s true for every state in the nation, he said.

“Matthew Shepard’s death contributed to the view of our state as a place that is intolerant of the LGBTQ community, and that image problem is still costing us today...” he said. “Hopefully our legislators will see fit to make it a statewide statute so we can finally counter the view that Wyoming is an unwelcoming environment.”

Not everyone in Casper would embrace a statewide law. Some residents who addressed the Council prior to its Feb. 20 vote were enthused about the resolution. Others had concerns.

Cathy Ide told the council members she meant no ill will towards the LGBTQ community. But she said the resolution would lead to a statewide law, which she feared would have negative consequences.

“(Sexual orientation and gender identity) resolutions and laws are not about the freedom of LGBT individuals to engage in certain actions,” she said. “Rather they are about penalizing citizens and businesses who, in good conscience, cannot endorse those actions.”

Elena Nachbar, another speaker, warned council members that anti-discrimination laws ultimately lead to “chaos and uncertainty” because they open the door to lawsuits and a flood of other anti-discrimination requests.

Councilman Chris Walsh, who was among the three council members who objected, said he believed it was “dangerous” to separate citizens into different sects.

“I don’t think that forming groups, and especially naming groups, benefits anybody,” he said.

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Ribbon

A rainbow ribbon pinned to a bicycle on the University of Wyoming campus in Laramie. Laramie and Jackson have passed nondiscrimination ordinances, which offer protections for people who are discriminated against due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Several other Wyoming cities, including Casper, have adopted non-binding resolutions. 

Laramie Mayor Andi Summerville can’t speak on behalf of any other municipality. But the mayor told the Star-Tribune that daily life in Laramie has “absolutely” carried on as normal since the town passed its anti-discrimination ordinance in 2015.

“There have not been any challenges,” she said. “It’s actually been a tool for economic development.”

Businesses interested in expanding to Wyoming often call and ask about the social environment in Laramie. They want to ensure that all their employees will feel safe and welcomed, Summerville said.

Employers are enthused to learn about the city’s ordinance, she said, adding that she hopes it leads to a discussion at the state level.

Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King said she would welcome a statewide measure. The resolution passed in Gillette with virtually no backlash, other than a few negative comments on social media, she said.

“It was the right thing to do,” she said. “We should treat all our citizens the same.”

Carter-King questions why local governments are paving the way, as opposed to the state.

“They should have been leading us,” she said.

The Wyoming Association of Municipalities, which advocates on behalf of local governments at the state and federal level, would support a statewide ordinance prohibiting discrimination due to sexual orientation, according to executive director Rick Kaysen.

The organization’s members discussed the issue and unanimously agreed in June, Kaysen said.

“We are the Equality State,” he said, “and we should practice that across the board.”

***

Ifland believes Casper’s resolution was needed and a statewide law is long overdue. She said it’s important to make a powerful statement and show the country that the actions of Shepard’s killers do not reflect the values of Wyoming.

She herself tried to make this point in the months following Shepard’s death. She said she organized a month’s worth of social justice-related events in February 1999.

One such event was the “Cleansing of the Park.” Participants used fire extinguishers to symbolically clean the park from the protesters’ hateful comments, Ifland said.

But not everything washed away.

Several years ago, Ifland said she went to visit her niece, who was attending a medical school in Michigan. Noting that Wyoming needs more doctors, Ifland encouraged some of the students to consider eventually relocating to the state.

But she said the future physicians weren’t impressed by the suggestion. One specifically mentioned Shepard’s murder and questioned why anyone would relocate to Wyoming.

“When something that extremely hateful happens, it has to be met with an equally powerful response,” Ifland said, staring out at the park. “Otherwise, it’s only the hateful, violent thing that most people will remember.”

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Local Government Reporter

Katie King joined the Star-Tribune in 2017 and primarily covers issues related to local government. She previously worked as a crime reporter in the British Virgin Islands. Originally from Virginia, Katie is a graduate of James Madison University.

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