Twenty years ago, 21-year old University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was lured out of a bar around midnight on Oct. 7, 1998 by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, abducted, driven to a very remote field east of Laramie, tied to a split-rail fence where he was brutally attacked and beaten with the butt of a pistol and left to die in the deserted field. He was miraculously found after 18 cold, painful, lonely hours by a bicyclist who thought he was a scarecrow. He died five days later. The brutality of his murder shocked the world into an awareness of hate towards gay people.
Matthew’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, teamed up with the family of James Bryrd Jr., whose horrific racist lynching-by-dragging murder. occurred four months earlier, to finally get a federal hate crime law passed in 2009 and signed into law by President Barack Obama.
“The most perplexing thing about hate for me is it’s a conscious choice. You choose to do that. You learn to do that,” Judy Shepard says in a video on the Matthew Shepard Foundation (MSF) website. The Shepards have devoted themselves to a campaign to “erase hate” and replace it with understanding, compassion and acceptance.
Toward that end, the MSF and the University of Wyoming have held annual symposiums since 1997 to take on and dialogue about the intersection of numerous social justice issues. This year’s symposium will be held from April 11-14 and will live stream numerous keynote speakers such as Judy Shepard and Megan Phelps-Roper, granddaughter of anti-gay Fred Phelps, whose Westboro Baptist Church loudly picketed Matthew Shepard’s funeral. (Recordings of the speeches will be posted here after the event.)
A number of the panels will be lived streamed, as well, including “Media Matters: Why Matt Shepard’s Death Captured the World’s Attention and the ‘Big Picture’ Impact.” The panel is on Thursday April 12, from 2:45pm – 3:40pm (1:45-2:40 PACIFIC time). The panel was organized by Cathy Renna, who is uniquely qualified in this subject since she was at GLAAD when Shepard was murdered and immediately flew to Laramie Wyoming to help the Shepard’s cope with the international media at the funeral and the subsequent murder trials. Click here to watch this panel streamed live.
This panel should prove particularly interesting since one of the panelists is Barbara Poma, owner of the Pulse nightclub, site of the largest mass shooting of LGBT people in American history. The shooting is currently undergoing intense scrutiny and in many ways being re-written after the trial of the wife of shooter Omar Mateen suggested that he did not target gays, as has been believed since the 2016 shooting in Orlando, Florida. Over the years, there have been attempts to de-gay and re-write the Matthew Shepard story, too.
Here are the panel speakers:
Director & Producer From Selma to Stonewall: Are We There Yet?
Author, activist, video biographer, non-profit consultant with a long career in social justice working with LGBTQ equality and the church. She was Executive Director of Reconciling Ministries Network (Chicago), a national organization working for sexual orientation and gender equality in the United Methodist Church. She has a Master of Divinity from SMU Perkins School of Theology where she later worked as the executive director of development, media and alumni relations. She is the co-author of We Were Baptized Too: Claiming God’s Grace for Lesbians and Gays, preface by retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Through her company Life Stories she currently produces video biographies for elders and people with cancer nationwide, and is a co-founder of Truth in Progress Productions. She resides in Helena, Montana.
University of Texas at Austin
Rod Caspers served as the executive director of University Events at the University of Texas at Austin – creating and producing special events. Prior to that he served as the executive director of Creative Services for the UT System where he and colleagues received five Lone Star Emmy Awards for creating/producing the PBS series, State of Tomorrow. In New York, Caspers served as associate director for GreenPlays. In Texas he produced/directed the Texas Performing Arts Center’s 20th Anniversary Gala with Tommy Tune, Linda Eder and The Broadway Tenors, and the We’re Texas Milestone Celebration featuring Judy Collins. Caspers staged the original production of Conspirare’s Considering Matthew Shepard and recently a production with the Louisiana State University A Cappella Choir for the National Collegiate Choral Organization’s national conference. He has also produced the Laramie Project.
Cathy Renna is the Principal of Target Cue, a premiere public relations and communications firm that focuses on LGBT and HIV related issues and provides media training, strategic and crisis communications services to diverse non-profit organizations. Renna has particular expertise in crisis and strategic communications and played a central role while at GLAAD in shaping media coverage of the beating death of Matthew Shepard in 1998, a tragedy that became a cultural marker for a shift in media visibility of LGBTQ issues. She was on the ground in Laramie immediately following the public disclosure of Shepard’s beating and subsequent milestones including the trials of the perpetrators. She has worked closely with the producers of the Laramie Project and the Matthew Shepard Foundation since.
University of Wyoming
Pr Title IX Coord, Mgr EORR
Jim Osborn, who was the President of the LGBT student group at the University in 1998 and a friend of Matt’s.His tireless efforts since have helped change the lives of LGBT people in Wyoming and beyond. Jim is one of the founders of “Angel Action” which took the media by a storm and forever changed the way communities responded to Fred Phelps protests and others like it. JIm is currently the Pr Title IX Coord, Mgr EORR at the University of Wyoming.
Owner of the Pulse nightclub and CEO ~ Executive Director onePULSE
Barbara Poma, owner of the Pulse nightclub and CEO ~ Executive Director onePULSE Foundation, IncFor more information or to support onePULSE Foundation 501(c)3 please visit: www.onePULSEFoundation.org Since the mass shooting at Pulse, Poma has worked tirelessly to promote sensible gun control and is working to create a memorial at the site of the Pulse nightclub to honor the 49 lives lost and educate the public with the message “We will not lethal win”