The principal reason I came to Laramie, and stayed two days, was a young man I never met, a man of slight stature, born prematurely and died prematurely. Matthew Shepard would be 38 years old now. He could marry the person of his choice, even in Wyoming. But he never got that chance.
When Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson murdered Matthew Shepard in 1998, I’d been out as a gay man for five years. Yet I was no more comfortable in my skin since that realization shattered the world I’d contrived. On the surface, my coming out was easy. No prejudice at work or my children’s school, certainly no personal violence. Still, after an initial burst of gayphoria, being gay was discomforting as being straight. Instead of pretending my sexuality away, I tossed it an ambiguous shrug. Even today, I don’t consider gay a defining characteristic. I’m a father, an architect, a writer, a cyclist, a yogi, and a curious wanderer who happens to be gay. Yet every key juncture of my personal life: my childhood isolation, who I married, why I had children, how my marriage dissolved, and why I’ve never attempted another relationship; are intrinsic to the fact that I’m gay and my inability to embrace that identity.
As a result, my gayness manifests in tangential ways. One of the first pushpins I stuck in the map of this trip was Laramie. I wanted to see where Matthew Shepard lived and where he died. I wanted to see the Fireside Lounge where he met his murderers. I wanted to see the fence that Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson tied him to and left him to bleed. It was important to me to seek out the spirit whose identify is forever bound to this gruesome act against gay men.
Laramie barely acknowledges the most famous event in its history, although the town is the central figure of The Laramie Project, the most frequently produced play in the world, and a widely distributed film. Laramie’s only official marker is a bench outside the Arts and Sciences Building on the University of Wyoming main quad. It faces a building entrance that reads: Prepare for Complete Living. The Fireside Lounge has had a face lift and several name changes. The street names leading to the beating site have been changed. ‘Private Property’ signs warn seekers away from the actual spot. Still, I made my way as far as legally allowed during the sunny interlude of a stormy afternoon. I had pedaled far with the certainty that Matthew Shepard had something to tell me.
The most disquieting aspect of where Matthew Shepard was beaten and left is how public it is: within a collection of houses on five-acre lots, some built before 1998. People lived within earshot of what happened. Did no one hear? Eighteen hours passed before Matthew was found, a full turn of daylight. Did no one see?
It is not a comfortable place: scrawny plants; gravel; a few utility stumps. Nothing invites a person to contemplate the underbelly of human behavior that raged here. I stood for some time trying to conjure meaning. Which meant, of course, that no meaning came. In time, a deer walked over the rise between two houses, crossed the road and stopped to graze. A second one joined her. Less than a hundred feet separated us. At one point the second deer picked up her head and looked right at me. I wanted her to communicate meaning, but the only truth she relayed is that these deer are very accustomed to people.
Eventually, both deer left, and so did I. A quarter mile down the gravel road to town a Leonard Cohen song sprung into my head, a song I’ve known for years. Yet in that moment it acquired completely new meaning. I’ve always identified with the man, the beggar leaning on his crutch. Wanting little, he could never be hurt or disappointed. Now I realized we are supposed to identify with the woman in the door. We have to go out and demand what we want. We may not get it, we may be disappointed, but we have to try.
We’ll never know what Matthew asked for the night he died. I believe he asked for more than was customarily gotten in his place and time. Asking for more got him killed. Yet, the savagery of Matthew’s death woke us all. Tragedies force us to question what is right from what is wrong. Matthew Shepard’s brutal death made it forever wrong to beat up on faggots.
Since Matthew Shepard died, the rest of us have received more. Not more than we deserve, just more than we had. In 1998 no one could predict how fully gay people live in 2015. Matthew’s death is an unquantifiable but significant factor in the world turning to our favor. I can integrate being gay into my life, or not, however I choose. Thanks to Matthew Shepard, and so many other martyrs and activists, I am free to ask for whatever I want.
How will we live tomorrow?