LARAMIE, Wyo. – Before Matthew Shepard’s killing became a national tragedy and his death a symbol for hate taken to its deadly extreme, James Osborn knew Matt as a friend.
Osborn graduated from the University of Wyoming in May 1998 and is now the adviser for the student group for Lesbians, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Association. Osborn met his friend Matt in Aug. 1998, after Shepard began school at UW and became a member of LGBTA. Shepard was killed Oct. 12 that year, a little over a month after Osborn met his friend.
At the time he knew Shepard, Osborn was the chair for the LGBTA at the university. Osborn said that even though his time with Matt was short, he made an immediate and radiant impression with him and Matt’s new friends in the LGBTA.
“Better than anyone else, Matt understood the concept of humanity,” Osborn said. “He saw people as people first and he was filled with limitless compassion. He had an advanced understanding that we are all people.”
Osborn said people who just saw Matt didn’t need to know him to know the kind of person he was, Matt’s smile would let people know.
“He didn’t just smile with his mouth,” Osborn said, “his eyes would sparkle and the rest of his body would smile.”
Matthew Shepard left a lasting impression on those who knew him, but his killing also created a legacy in Laramie and throughout the country.
“I think part of his legacy is that it showed people you don’t have to gay to be affected by LGBT issues,” Osborn said. “(Matt’s death) has made more people aware of the hate and prejudice that LGBT people face everyday. We are much more aware because we saw that hate exists everywhere and, unfortunately, manifests itself through physical violence.”
Fred Phelps and his followers are familiar to people in Laramie since Shepard’s killing because he has protested his message against gays there many times. Phelps also protested during Shepard’s funeral.
This year, Fred Phelps and his followers from Westboro plan to protest outside the CSU/Wyoming football game Oct. 12, which is the exact fourth anniversary of Shepard’s death.
For Phelps next planned visit, in Casper, Wyo., LGBTA and others plan to show the community’s resolve and humor in dealing with Phelps’ loud and outspoken message against gays.
Travis Kirchhefer, a UW senior and member of LGBTA, said they plan to bless an entire fire truck – making the water holy – and spraying down the park where Phelps plans to visit, in effect cleansing the park of Phelps’ presence.
Kirchhefer manned a booth Tuesday in UW’s student center for LGBTA as part of the organization’s LGBTA Awareness Week. Kirchhefer handed out information about LGBT issues, buttons for students to show their support for gay rights and ribbons meant to remind people about Shepard’s killing. The ribbons Kircheffer handed out were yellow armbands with hollow, green circles on them. The green circles are the international symbol for peace.
Kirchhefer said he “can’t wrap his mind around” Phelps’ message.
“I can’t even begin to believe someone would do this. What disturbs me the most, is when you see kids holding signs, almost bigger than they are, saying ‘God Hates Fags,'” Kirchhefer said.
Shanna Pond is a freshman at UW. She said her mom, Ann Pond, was the ambulance driver who took Shepard to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins after he was discovered beaten and tied to a fence outside Laramie. Pond remembers Shepard attending the same church as her and her family.
“It was so shocking something like this could happen,” Pond said. “It still is (shocking).”
Pond said Laramie dealt with the tragedy the best way it could, and she hates it that UW is now nationally known for Shepard’s killing.
Pond also said it hurts her and Laramie each time Phelps protests.
“It’s like putting salt in the wound,” she said.
Pond said she plans on attending the football game in Fort Collins and hopes to contain her emotions when she sees Phelps and his followers there.
“I hope I am not intoxicated,” she said, “because I don’t (want to) do something (I will regret.)”
Osborn, Kirchhefer and Pond all agree Phelps might actually be strengthening Shepard’s legacy of gay rights and awareness because so many people come together against his message.
Osborn said he has come face to face with Phelps twice, and this year LGBTA plans to respond to his protests like they have in the past: peacefully.
“This year we aren’t doing anything special,” Osborn said. “All we are doing is lending our support for the LGBTA in Fort Collins. Also, we just plan to have a big old party.”
This year, UW’s LGBTA is holding an event for students returning to Laramie after the football game called “Parties Not Prejudice.”
“We are just going to come together in celebration of a life and against bigotry and prejudice,” Osborn said.
Osborn said the focus for LGBT individuals at UW right now is coordinating the events for LGBT Awareness week and remembrance of Shepard, not Westboro. He said it is important live life and not let Westboro’s message affect LGBT individuals.
More needs to be done
Even though Matthew Shepard’s legacy resonanates throughout Laramie and his killing has done a lot to change people’s attitudes towards LGBT people and their issues, Osborn said Laramie still struggles for complete understanding of the adversity facing gays.
“Laramie is a good place with good people. I live here by choice,” Osborn said. “(Laramie) has its biases just like anywhere on earth; every community has its problems, but I think a majority of people don’t think it is right to hurt someone because he or she is gay.”
Osborn described many Wyoming resident’s approach toward gays by quoting a common motto used throughout the state.
“In Wyoming, people usually think of it as a place to ‘live and let live,’ but I think it is a place to ‘live and let live quietly.'” Osborn said. “It is still very traditional and people have their set foundation and beliefs. I think people here will accept you as long as you don’t tell them too much about yourself.”
Osborn also said much work needs to be done to make people shed the stereotypes and biases people have about gays and make people more tolerant.
“All we need is simple education and awareness,” Osborn said. “Being gay is not the sum total of me as a human being. There are more pieces to my puzzle.”
Shepard’s legacy in public policy
The awareness caused by Shepard’s killing might also help further advance gay rights in public policy, Osborn said.
Osborn said many rights guaranteed to straight people are not to LGBT people, despite what many people think.
“People think that in this day in age, people don’t discriminate because you are gay. But when you buy a house, sexual orientation is not one of the things protected under equal housing lenders standards,” he said. “If I go to buy a house and they find out I am gay, they could refuse to sell me the house. There are no legal protections in a lot of places.”
Osborn also said the country lacks many federal protections.
“In 38 states in the union, I could be fired because I am gay,” he said. “It is perfectly legal.”
Osborn said many companies do have a policy protecting people from sexual orientation discrimination, but not all companies do.
Osborn said more strides are needed for a recognized union between gay couples because there are many privileges currently not available to LGBT individuals, like adoption, tax benefits from joint returns and health care. He said the last he checked there were “1,049 rights and privileges that come from the act of marriage.”
“There are basic rights and privileges that people take for granted every day that LGBT people just don’t have,” Osborn said. “I not crying for special rights, I want the same rights.”
Osborn said the biggest, and best, legacy Matt left for Laramie and America was the opening of a dialogue for future progress in LGBT issues and awareness.
“I think that small discussions are taking place at dinner in the homes across America,” Osborn said. “I know of parents who went home and told their kids ‘it’s okay to be whoever you are.’
“Not that that was a new attitude, but they expressed it. I think that is one of the biggest changes (since Matt Shepard’s killing), is the just the furthering of that discourse and that awareness.”
-Edited by Shandra Jordan and Ben Koerselman