LARAMIE — Mayor Andi Summerville arrived here in 1999, a year after Matthew Shepard was murdered. She was 17 years old at the time, four years younger than Shepard had been when he was beaten and left to die. The attack on Shepard, an openly gay college student and Casper native, received national attention and “rocked this community ... absolutely to its fundamental core,” as Summerville put it.
“I got to live the experience through the eyes of a very young person here in Laramie,” Summerville said. “So it’s a little surreal to be sitting here 20 years later in the seat of the mayor and trying to bring that experience of what I saw and what I witnessed and what I experienced as a college student into my leadership role in the city of Laramie.”
Summerville and University of Wyoming officials spoke on campus Monday to announce the Matthew Shepard Memorial Group’s plans for commemorating the 20-year anniversary of Shepard’s death. The events will begin in September and are highlighted by a performance of “Considering Matthew Shepard” by Grammy-winning choral group Conspirare.
“I think a lot of people’s response has manifested itself into making music, making documentaries, making art,” UW director of choral activities Nicole Lamartine said. “And (Conspirare director) Craig Hella Johnson was deeply moved by the tragedy, and this was his form to let it all percolate out and to come to a feeling of catharsis.”
The Oct. 6 performance will be a free ticketed event held at the Laramie High School Theatre. Other events on the tentative schedule include film screenings, a candlelight vigil, a book discussion and eyewitness accounts from those who were in Laramie during the events surrounding Shepard’s death.
The Matthew Shepard Memorial Group is a subcommittee of the Shepard Symposium on Social Justice, an annual symposium that began as the Symposium for the Eradication of Social Inequality in 1997. Members of the Matthew Shepard Foundation also attended Monday’s news conference.
“We have students, we have faculty, we have staff, and we have community members,” UW Chief Diversity Officer Emily Monago said of the subcommittee. “We wanted to make sure that we represented well every constituent group of the university and also reach out to the community.”
The subcommittee held its first meeting in May but plans for marking the 20th anniversary of the murder began last fall.
UW President Laurie Nichols, who also spoke at the event, shared details from Shepard’s life.
“There’s no question, I’m just going to say it, he was a real asset to this campus and to this community,” Nichols said. “We all know that his hopes and dreams were not realized due to hate and violence that he experienced toward himself personally and perhaps more broadly to the LGBTQ community.
“I just want to say, I’m not going to talk a lot about his murder. We know about it. We’ve read about it. We all feel terrible about it. It’s shaped this community to a large extent, because of just the tragedy of it all and obviously the ending of a young person’s life way too early.”
Nichols instead spoke about where UW is 20 years later, saying that the university embraces diversity “perhaps because of Matthew Shepard.”
“I don’t know if you can ever totally prevent things, but you certainly work towards that goal every day, and I think that we should never lose focus about that,” Nichols said. “Eliminating hate, eliminating hateful words and violence against people because they represent any type of a background or any group. And that’s certainly a goal of ours, although we have a lot of work to do, and we continue to work on that on this campus.”
The 20-year anniversary comes on the heels of a new UW marketing campaign that received criticism for its slogan, “The world needs more cowboys,” which some said reinforced the image of a white, heterosexual man.
“To be honest, some of the feedback we received early on about our slogan ... helped us go back and re-look at that video,” Nichols said, “and I think if you’ve seen it, you see that diversity comes out pretty strongly in it.”
Nichols said this fall’s events are “absolutely” a chance for the university to promote inclusivity.
As a city, Laramie passed a non-discrimination ordinance in 2015 that prohibits “discrimination of any person based upon his or her actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations” — a first in Wyoming. Jackson has since joined Laramie in passing an ordinance, but the state does not have a hate crimes law.
“The (non-discrimination ordinance) came through the city council as a way of really trying to reflect the values of this community,” Summerville said, “which are to be a place that is open and accepting of everybody and is a place where everybody can go to school and work and play and live safely and be able to pursue their dreams and goals the way that they want to.”
Summerville also highlighted the creation of the Laramie Youth Council and the Laramie Police Department’s annual publishing of a bias crime report.
The tentative schedule begins Sept. 4, the suggested date for delivering a mayoral proclamation to city clerks as well as an announcement of anniversary events to city council.