Gay murder incites fear and fury

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The Independent Online
WHEN LESLEA Newman, author of the controversial children's book Heather Has Two Mommies, was invited to be the keynote speaker for Gay Awareness Week at the University of Wyoming, she thought she was in for a pleasant time in a civilised small western college town.

Instead, she walked straight into the most brutal murder case to hit the American gay community in years. On the morning of her appearance last Monday, a 21-year-old political science student called Matt Shepard died in a nearby hospital after lying in a coma for five days. He had been bludgeoned around the head with the butt of a revolver, tied to a fence miles away from town and left for dead by two men who apparently resented him making a pass at them in a Laramie bar.

This was little short of a gay lynching, and, indeed, the lone cyclist who happened to notice Shepard's unconscious form mistook him, at first, for a scarecrow.

Newman was terrified. As a precaution, her event was attended by a plain- clothes police officer. The whole campus was in ferment, and despite a massive show of solidarity for Shepard and the rapid arrest of his assailants there were widespread fears in the gay community of other attacks. "She was visibly scared, and stayed on edge until her presentation was done," said Jenn Palmer, chair of a university gay and lesbian group that organised the event.

She was not the only one to react that way. "When I saw the two young men on television being arraigned, I recognised them as exactly the types who drive past me in their pick-ups when I'm out biking," recounted a recently arrived lesbian writer from Boston, identifying herself only as Liz. "The kind who shout `you f****ing faggot!' and let you know exactly where you stand."

Shepard's murder has galvanised gay and civil rights groups across the country who have seized on it as a shocking symbol of rampant intolerance towards homosexuals. Candle-lit vigils have been held in more than a dozen cities from Los Angeles to Washington, and politicians right up to President Bill Clinton have called for new federal legislation to define hate crimes as a specifically punishable offence.

The particular anguish the attack has caused in Laramie has been compounded by one haunting question: did this murder come out of the blue, or was it somehow inevitable in such a place? Certainly, the national television networks have been quick to depict Laramie as a hick town in a remote western state crawling with gun- toting right-wing Christian fundamentalists.

"My condolences to all of you who must live in that part of the country," one university professor from Alabama wrote to a Wyoming newspaper. "A greater misfortune is, indeed, harder to imagine." Superficially, at least, that assessment could not be more wrong. This is a quiet, broadly liberal small town, where folks leave their front doors unlocked and crime of any kind is rare. As soon as news of the attack spread, Laramie responded speedily and uniformly with an outpouring of revulsion and profound shock. The two suspects, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, were caught thanks to the vigilance of the public and now face life imprisonment, if not the death penalty.

There have been vigils, prayer groups, "teach-ins" on the campus green to preach tolerance, and more besides. Dozens of heterosexual students turned up at the "Straight But Not Narrow" table at the Gay Awareness event. Even the university's fraternities and sororities, not usually known for their progressive ideas, volunteered to collect money for the Matthew Shepard Memorial Fund.

If any false notes were sounded, they were not in Laramie but in Fort Collins, home to Colorado State University 65 miles to the south-east where Shepard was taken for hospital treatment. Gay professors there said they had received anonymous hate messages by e-mail. While Shepard was still in his coma, a float turned up at a CSU homecoming parade with a scarecrow image and the words "I'm gay" scrawled across the face - an episode that has since led to the investigation of 11 students and the closure of the entire chapter of the Alpha Chi Omega sorority.

As the days have passed, sentiments of lurking prejudice have gradually surfaced. On talk radio shows, a handful of callers have suggested that Shepard somehow got what he deserved. Newspapers have reported that he supposedly propositioned other men, concluding on the flimsiest of evidence that he was asking for trouble. And a small Baptist group from Kentucky, whose Internet website is called "God Hates Fags'', has vowed to travel to picket two memorial services being held for Shepard.

While Laramie might be broadly liberal, that does not make it a tolerant place. Homosexuals regularly complain of discrimination when seeking housing or employment - including one former psychology professor at the university who believes he was refused tenure because he was gay. It has no gay bars, and gays cannot hold hands in public without attracting insulting comments.

Perhaps the best way to understand Laramie is as one of a number of liberal American college towns plonked in the middle of backward, narrow-minded territory. The highly reputable University of Indiana in Bloomington, for example, is 20 miles away from the headquarters of the Ku-Klux-Klan. The cluster of liberal universities around Raleigh and Durham in North Carolina are surrounded by similarly intolerant populations.

Laramie wanted to pass an ordinance last year, cracking down on "nudity" including life models in university art classes. It was eventually dropped after noisy protests.

Such an atmosphere does not make Matt Shepard's case any less exceptional, but it does make it a little less surprising.