Laramie (United States) (AFP) – Nearly 25 years ago, the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard — a gay college student in Wyoming who was beaten, tied to a fence and left to die — shocked America.
Today, the small city of Laramie — the scene of the infamous hate crime — has become an improbable refuge for sexual minorities in the ultra-conservative mountain state.
“It’s always funny to say that I didn’t come out until I came to Wyoming, because people just don’t think that’s possible,” says 27-year-old Ray Kasckow, a transgender person living in the city of 30,000, nestled between two mountains.
In Wyoming, a state known for being the least populous in the nation and for giving Donald Trump a thunderous victory in 2020, Kasckow’s story seems anomalous.
For many Americans, the city is forever known as the place where Shepard was killed.
On October 6, 1998, the 21-year-old University of Wyoming student was driven away from a bar to a secluded area by two young men.
They savagely pistol-whipped him before leaving him for dead. Shepard was found 18 hours later by a cyclist who initially mistook him for a scarecrow.
He never regained consciousness and died in hospital a few days later.
Shepard’s killing served as a wake-up call, shining a cold light on homophobic violence in America.
In 2009, a federal law named for Shepard went into effect, expanding existing hate crimes legislation to include crimes motivated by a victim’s gender or sexual orientation.
But in Laramie, people did not want to wait around for change.
“Folks in Laramie left — professors left, students left, residents left out of fear,” recalls Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother.
With husband Dennis at her side, Judy founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation “to try to make life better for Matt’s friends and peers in the community.”
A New York theater troupe came to town multiple times to develop “The Laramie Project,” a play that recounts how the sleepy city became a scene for murder, depicting a fatal brew of toxic masculinity, cowboy mentality and isolation.
In Laramie, where life is punctuated by the passage of long freight trains, the local LGBT activist network sprang up little by little.
Then in 2015, the city was the first in the state to adopt an ordinance banning workplace or housing discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation.
Two years later, Laramie held its first Pride parade.
Rainbow flags fly in front of most businesses in Laramie, and all around the bar where Shepard was kidnapped.
Young people walk in the streets with buttons reading “they/them” — pronouns used by those who do not identify as a man or woman.
“People come here to Laramie because they know that there are communities present, and they know that they have friends and they have a support system,” Kasckow says.
‘Lots of stigma’
The welcoming atmosphere in Laramie is in stark contrast to how LGBTQ people feel they are treated in the rest of the state, according to Tyler Wolfgang, member of the Laramie Pridefest group.
“Wyoming has a long way to go as a LGBTQ-friendly state,” Wolfgang says, explaining that local legislatures have attempted to push through so-called “anti-trans bills” affecting transgender people over school athletics and bathroom usage.
“We see lots of stigma and a lot of transphobic thoughts or comments,” the non-binary activist adds.
Beyond Wyoming, other conservative-leaning US states have seen what activists say are efforts to single out transgender people, with primarily Republican lawmakers redoubling their efforts as national midterm elections set for November draw near.
“We’re right back where we started, essentially, in the community,” Judy Shepard says, slamming what she calls the “terrible attitude of ignorance and hate directed at the gay community, as is being directed at all the marginalized communities ” across the country.
But since 1998 and Matthew’s death, Judy Shepard says the community is organized.
“So many more people are out and comfortable as who they are… I think that we’re making attempts to erase us more difficult,” she says.
Matthew Shepard’s ashes were interred at the National Cathedral in Washington to mark the 20th anniversary of his death.
In Laramie, a bench was erected in the middle of the University of Wyoming campus where he studied political science.
The plaque on it reads: “He continues to make a difference.”