One of the most prominent memories of my high school years (which I spent as a closeted gay kid in Wyoming) was when a boy in class made a joke about another boy who had done something “feminine.” He said his friend “should be tied to a fence and shown what we do to queers in Wyoming.” Both boys laughed. Most of the class laughed. The teacher laughed too.
In the intervening years since Matt’s murder, many alternative narratives have been presented, with each eager to classify Matt’s death as anything but a hate crime. One only needs to read the comments section of recent memorial articles by state and national media to see how fervent many are in their crusade to share the “real story” of what happened to Matt. Embedded in these attempts to shift the focus away from gay identity is a belief that if one were to prove that Matt was not murdered for being gay, then Laramie and indeed Wyoming could finally be absolved – our reputation and conscience wiped clean.
My intent with this piece is not to debate the facts of the case (though I will say that I accept the evidence as presented by local law enforcement and in the prosecution of Matt’s murderers). Instead, I wish to contend that there is an inherent problem with the logic that Wyoming can be “let off the hook” if we can prove the crime was not motivated by hate.
The trouble is that Wyoming’s problem with pervasive homophobia did not start, nor did it end, with Matt Shepard. Just this past May, when visiting my hometown, a group of high school kids shouted, “faggot!” at me as I visited a park. I’m nearly 30 years old – I possess the personal fortitude to withstand the sordid antics of misguided youth. I share this story not to present myself as some woebegone snowflake, but rather to underscore that this happened in 2018, and it demonstrates that anti-gay values are still being taught to children in Wyoming.
One thing I do not want to overlook is that Wyoming has improved since Matt’s murder. As a gay man I feel comfortable being myself (at least in Laramie), and attitudes do seem to be changing. However, I view this improvement as a result of shifting national attitudes, and not due to any specific action taken by the state. Remember that though the national Hate Crimes Prevention Act bears Matt’s name, Wyoming is one of only five states that has no hate crimes legislation at the state level.
This tragedy provided Wyoming with an opportunity to engage in critical self-reflection, and a platform to show how a state can learn from its mistakes, own its weaknesses and move forward with action. Sadly, we failed to seize those opportunities and instead have retreated into a familiar Wyoming disposition– denial.
Regarding denial, we can’t pretend that Matt’s murder wasn’t a watershed moment for LGBTQ rights – it was. We can’t pretend people don’t equate “Wyoming” with “anti-gay hate” – they do. We can’t pretend we don’t have a long way to go to make every Wyomingite feel safe – we absolutely do.
We also can’t pretend that the way Wyoming has done business since its creation, relying nearly exclusively on mineral resources, is going to sustain our future – it will not. Wyoming currently finds itself at a crossroads. We desperately need to diversify our economy and bring new industry, and new people, into our state. I am pleased to finally hear state-level candidates from both political parties acknowledging this important truth. However, we cannot succeed in this goal if we hold onto backwards, exclusionary principals. Nationally, anti-gay sentiment is fading away. If we don’t catch on, Wyoming might fade away too.