Gay student dies after beating

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The Independent Online
A GAY college student who was beaten, tied to a fence and left in the freezing cold in a small town in Wyoming died yesterday - adding heightened tension to an already anxious debate about tolerance for homosexuality and the need to legislate against hate crimes.

Matthew Shepard, 21, a political science major at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, died after five days on a life support machine in a Colorado hospital. He had been pistol-whipped around the head and burned during his ordeal, then left lashed to the fence like a scarecrow for 18 hours before being discovered by a cyclist.

Two young men have been arrested, and their girlfriends charged with being accessories after the fact. Although there is some confusion about the motive - Shepard was robbed as well as beaten - the community of Laramie appears in no doubt that he was attacked because of his sexuality.

The reaction has been an outpouring of support for the victim and his family. But there has also been an anxious debate about Wyoming's record in defending minorities and whether the attackers were the product of an inherently hostile environment. "This incident was atypical in its brutality, but not in its underlying motive," two Unitarian ministers wrote in the local paper.

Wyoming calls itself the "Equality State", but has refused to introduce laws targeted against hate crimes. At the urging of President Clinton it is now reconsidering.