Today was a rest day in Casper. Casper is located in east-central Wyoming at the foot of Casper Mountain, the north end of the Laramie Mountain Range, along the North Platte River, with a population of 55,316. There are suburbs of NYC with populations larger than that, and yet Casper is the second largest city in Wyoming after Cheyenne, which is the state capital. Casper is nicknamed “The Oil City” and has a long history of oil boomtown and cowboy culture. The city was established east of the former site of Fort Caspar, which was built during the mid-19th century mass migration of land seekers along the Oregon, California and Mormon trails.
It’s hard to get a pulse on Wyoming. Wyoming is the least populous (total number of people) state of the United States, and has the second lowest population density, behind Alaska. More than 50% of the state is owned by the Federal Government. Being here, you definitely feel like Oregon and Idaho are a different world. That this state has an “old west” feel to it. Something about the “painted” desert cliffs and dry, dusty air. Sweeping plains with cattle graising. There are places and monuments where Indian massacres occurred. More than any other place we have visited so far, I find myself projecting backward, wondering what it would have been like to have been here during the migration of Americans west. What kind of people were they? Were they as mean in the saloon as portrayed in some Westerns?
One person who did not make it home alive in modern times from the saloon was Matthew Shepard, who was gay and grew up here in Casper. Shortly after midnight on October 6, 1998, Shepard met a couple of guys and with their girlfriends at a bar in Laramie, Wyoming. The two guys offered to give Shepard a ride home, but subsequently drove to a remote, rural area and proceeded to rob, pistol-whip, and torture Shepard, tying him to a fence and leaving him to die. Shepard, who was still alive but in a coma, was discovered 18 hours later by a cyclist(!) who initially mistook Shepard for a scarecrow. His injuries were deemed too severe for doctors to operate. Shepard never regained consciousness and died 6 days later.
During a pre-trial hearing, a Laramie police officer testified that the violence against Shepard was due to how the attacker “felt about gays,” per an interview of the attacker’s girlfriend who said she received that explanation. Shepard’s murder brought national and international attention to the contention of hate crime legislation at the state and federal levels.
The Matthew Shepard Act failed to get through Congress in 2007, but in 2009 the House of Representatives debated expansion of hate crimes legislation again. During the debate, Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina called the “hate crime” labeling of Shepard’s murder a “hoax”, (with Shepard’s mother listening in the gallery), but the House passed the act anyway. After passing the Senate by a vote of 68-29, President Obama signed the measure into law on October 28, 2009.
I think most people reading this have some recollection of these events, and the terrible crime committed against Matthew. And I am not trying to indict the state of Wyoming, especially 14 years later. I’m just trying to make sure that his legacy and the battle by his mother to remember her son and push forward the legislation are appreciated.