Cathy Renna wasn’t sure what to expect when she flew into Wyoming for the first time in October 1998. None of her preconceptions prepared her for the experience.
She was humbled and awed by the Equality State’s mountain ranges and vast prairies. She was also greeted by the wind, which detracted from the natural beauty but not enough to override her initial impression.
At the time, she was working for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and arrived in Laramie on her usual mission to educate those in the wake of tragedy. Her latest objective involved teaching locals and visitors about the LGBTQ community after the vicious murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, that left the small college town of Laramie with a seemingly unshakable reputation.
“I always go to the nicest, most beautiful places for the worst reasons,” Renna likes to say. She considers that first trip to Wyoming no different.
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Shepard’s murder brought the national spotlight onto Laramie and Wyoming in a way that arguably nothing had before. During the ensuing two decades, both city and state have been forced to carry the weight of that tragedy. For people living elsewhere, Shepard’s murder and the place where it occurred remain irrevocably bound together.
“That’s going to be a near-impossible thing for the town to shed,” Renna said. “I wish people would understand that and embrace it in the sense of ‘We will own this crime,’ but it also happens everywhere else.”
Part of that is due to symbolism, said Brody Levesque, who then wrote for LGBTQ Nation and now writes for the New Civil Rights Movement.
Two men tied Shepard to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie and brutally beat him. Then they left him there, in the cold and dark, where a bicyclist found him 18 hours later.
“Matthew’s death and the state of Wyoming are forever tied together,” Levesque said. “When that biker found him, we’re talking a desolate part outside of the township on the Wyoming prairie. That just amplified the signal. What further amplified it is the brutality itself.”
And while that tragic evening showed the dark side of the Wyoming prairie, others have come to appreciate the state over time.
U.S. figure skater Adam Rippon heard stories about Laramie before visiting last month. He was only 8 years old, growing up in the small town of Clarkson, Pennsylvania, when Wyoming was under the national spotlight. Earlier this year, he competed for the United States men’s team that finished third at the Olympics in South Korea. With that bronze, Rippon became the first out gay U.S. male athlete to medal in a Winter Olympics.
Rippon recently visited Laramie while working on a story about the legacy of Shepard’s murder for “Nightline.” Within the first two hours of walking downtown, he experienced how welcoming and open the residents can be.
“Everyone was 100 percent right that this is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been,” he said. “It’s beautiful. It’s serene. It is a small town, but there’s something so welcoming.”
Still, there are some in America who think Laramie, and Wyoming, lost its beautiful innocence that night.
Columbine High School has become synonymous with the nation’s first major mass school shooting, which occurred 8 months after Shepard’s death, and Sandy Hook is as much a memorial for slain 7-year-olds and teachers as it is an elementary school in Connecticut. In many ways, Laramie, and the entire state of Wyoming, share the same fate.
Wyoming is rural and conservative, a place with a reputation for quiet toughness and old-fashioned values. And while progressive locations like the San Francisco Bay Area have also been sites of hate crimes on members of the LGBTQ community, Shepard’s murder played into the stereotype of flyover country as an intolerant, and dangerous, place for gay people.
“This also happens in towns all over the country,” Renna said. “To stigmatize Laramie as the one place where this happened isn’t unrealistic, but it’s unfair.”
It’s that reputation, however, that remains in the national conversation surrounding Wyoming. The brutality of Shepard’s murder rattled the nation’s conscience. And a place full of people that callous, the stereotype held, would never welcome members of the LGBTQ community.
Author and columnist Dan Savage remembers exactly where he was when he first heard about Matthew Shepard. Savage was in a Minneapolis hotel room when he heard the news, hours after Shepard was found tied to a fence post on Oct. 7, 1998. It was Savage’s birthday. He spent most of the night weeping. The following day he wrote a column for the Seattle Stranger, where he was associate editor at the time.
Every Oct. 7 since that heartaching night in Minneapolis, he’s thought of Matthew Shepard.
And those emotions, along with public perception, haven’t changed the state’s reputation to some outside of its borders.
"Wyoming in the imaginations of gay people, including those who grew up there, is a place you flee for fear,” said Savage, who is gay.
The prosecution of Shepard’s murderers was a silver lining for many outside Wyoming. Savage didn’t think that the state would file first-degree murder charges or seek the death penalty. (It did both.) Traditionally, hate crimes committed against the gay community were cast aside, and little repercussions were brought upon the assailants. So this, as small as it was, marked progress.
“The state of Wyoming, which then and now doesn’t seem very welcoming to the gay community,” Savage said, “prosecuted them like the men had murdered a nun.”
And perhaps that’s when Wyoming’s national reputation began to heal, even if, 20 years later, the scars are still there. The heinous attack that shook a nation remains forever attached to its location two decades later. There are some who view Wyoming as they did when Shepard was murdered. Others have found the home of Matthew Shepard to be much more.
“I’m the kind of person that tries to find the good in the worst,” Renna said. “When I think about Laramie, Matt’s murder isn’t the first thing I think of. I think of people.”