Father's admission 25 years on from world's most famous gay-hate murder

It's been almost three decades since Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered, and his father's determined not to let the world forget it.

Matthew Shepard in a portrait prior to his murder in 1998.
It's been almost 26 years since Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered, in what's widely recognised as one of the most shocking acts of gay-hate the western world has ever seen. Source: Matthew Shepard Foundation

It's been almost 26 years since Matthew Shepard's brutal murder, in what's widely been described as one of the most gruesome, premeditated gay-hate attacks the western world has ever seen.

In 1998, the 21-year-old university student was abducted, pistol whipped and violently bashed by two young men who later tied him to a fence, set him on fire and left him to die after robbing him for $20 in near-freezing conditions in Laramie, Wyoming.

Almost 24 hours passed before an onlooker eventually found a comatose Matthew, with his face so badly beaten it was almost entirely covered in blood, except where it had been partially cleansed by tears. As result of his injuries, Matthew was left with severe brainstem damage.

He never woke up and died six days later.

A vigil for Matthew Shepard in 1998, in the wake of his murder in Lamarie, Wyoming.
Many LGBTQ+ advocates consider Matthew's death as a defining moment in the gay rights movement. Source: Getty

The subsequent double murder trial — and conviction — on top of years of intense international media coverage, is something that almost every LGBTQ+ person will likely never forget.

In the almost three decades that have passed "we've made a lot of progress in a lot of ways", Dennis Shepard, Matthew's father, tells Yahoo News Australia, but the world is still "a dark place" for millions of queer people everywhere.

Shepard said he believes Matthew would be in total "shock" at his own legacy and while overall, many people "have realised that it doesn’t matter whether you're straight or gay", in some countries, LGBTQ+ rights have regressed and even "gotten worse".

"In some places, you have a bright light, in other places it's still very, very dark," Shepard told Yahoo. "We have come a long way in many aspects because you have same sex couples now all around the world being allowed to marry, to have partnerships or whatever it might be.

Matthew Shepard in a portrait prior to his murder in 1998.
Matthew was robbed, beaten and left to die in near freezing conditions in Wyoming in 1998. He died in hospital six days later. Source: Matthew Shepard Foundation

"But other places have gotten worse. Uganda, and even in Iran now, for example, it's not the death penalty anymore, but it's 10 to 15 years in prison."

Shepard said the "two-tiered system" that existed in 1998 throughout much of the world when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights still exists today. He believes the only way that'll ever change is through legislative changes, that he hopes are on the horizon.

"We have a straight son, and Matt was gay, and our straight son had more rights than our gay son. It was like that back then and it's still like that today," he said. You can be married in all 50 states in the US, but you can still be fired in 30 states if you identify as LGBTQ.

"And there's nothing that can be done about it until we pass state laws and federal laws. That's something that's a big danger," Shepard continued.

"People, especially young people, don't care who's holding whose hand, they're more concerned with the war in Gaza, Ukraine, gun violence, climate change."

Today marks the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT) where the community stands in solidarity LGBTQ+ people all around the world to continue to champion for acceptance, inclusivity and human rights.

Dennis Shepard poses as he reflects on 25 years since his son Matthew's murder.
Dennis Shepard says he's 'extremely proud' of his son's legacy and will continue to work alongside his wife Judy to champion acceptable through the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Source: Getty

According to Shepard, in 2024 we still need days like IDAHOBIT as much as we ever have.

"Everywhere around the world, including Australia, you have [certain political factions] using fear to generate hate against people are different, instead of getting to know those people and finding out for themselves," he said. "They're just like anybody else. We also need to start working on people talking face to face."

Shepard said he's been blown away by fact that Matthew's case still makes headlines 25 years later and remains a driving force behind the LGBTQ+ rights movement. Though, it might not come as a surprise to some, given his tragic and untimely death has since been adapted into a Netflix documentary, multiple books, TV shows, stage plays and even music.

In June 2019, Shepard was one of the inaugural 50 American "pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes" inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument (SNM) in New York City's Stonewall Inn. Alongside his wife Judy — who Shepard credits for leading the charge — the couple established the Matthew Shepard Foundation, a LGBTQ+ nonprofit organisation.

Earlier this week in Sydney, Dennis joined the cast of the Australian adaption of The Lamarie Project, delivering the same powerful speech he made in a Wyoming courtroom 25 years ago.

"What happened to Matt woke up this country and a lot the world, that this is happening everywhere, and we need to change it," Shepard said.

"We figured we only had a couple of years, and then people would forget about it, because other things would come up, things like 911, Afghanistan. But for some reason, that story stayed in the forefront. Maybe it's because of who he was, or what he represented.

Protesters in 1998 in the wake of Matthew Shepard's brutal murder.
Matthew's heinous murder sent shock waves around the world, resulting in the conviction of two young men who each received two consecutive life sentences. Protesters seen here in 1998. Source: Getty

"The same thing is happening now that happened in 1998 when we lost Matt, and our job is to try and bring awareness and remind people that this is still happening, especially to young people.

"I'm just incredibly proud to be involved."

The Laramie Project is the second-most produced play in the US and has been seen by an estimated 10 million people around the world, across over 40 countries and having been adapted into 16 different languages.

"I think Matt would just be shocked at how his life — and his dreams and goals and ambitions to make a better world — have actually ended up creating that," Shepard said.

Speaking to Yahoo News Australia on the IDAHOBIT, CEO of Minus18's, Australia's LGBTQIA+ Youth Organisation, Micah Scott, said two in three young queer Aussies experience abuse due to their identity.

"IDAHOBIT marks the date homosexuality was declassified as a disease in 1990, however three decades on, LGBTQIA+ communities still face discrimination in Australia," he said. "Two in three young queer Aussies experience abuse due to their identity, while only 38 per cent feel comfortable being out and proud at work — a number that's getting worse, not improving.

"The next generation of queer youth are leading the charge when it comes to putting diversity and inclusion front and centre, and it's time for the rest of the world to catch up.

"Seemingly small actions of visibility — like wearing a rainbow pin or displaying your pronouns in your email signature — can make a huge difference to the lives of LGBTQIA+ people. There are so many ways allies can stand alongside their LGBTQIA+ peers today — and every day — to say no to discrimination."

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