LARAMIE — A few dozen LGBTQ community members and supporters gathered outside the University of Wyoming Student Union on Friday evening to reflect on a local legacy of violence and look toward a future they hope will be better.
Laramie PrideFest and the UW Multicultural Affairs organized the vigil, which became an annual tradition since the event began in 2017.
The vigil was in remembrance of Matthew Shepard, a gay 21-year-old UW student who died in October 1998 in the days after two men beat him and tied him to a fence, where he was left until a biker found him.
The murder became a nationwide news, with vigils and demonstrations against intolerance-inspired violence being held across the county.
Anti-LGBTQ groups also have come out in full force, including Westboro Baptist church protesting Shepard’s funeral in Casper and arriving in Laramie in 1999.
Shepard’s friends, family and gay rights activists from across the country reacted with their own protests and advocacy work, elevating Shepard’s name to be associated with a reinvigoration of gay rights advocacy in the 2000s.
Though Wyoming doesn’t have a statewide hate crimes law, Shepard’s name was connected to the 2009 federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act. In 2015, Laramie became the first city in Wyoming to pass a non-discrimination ordinance for LGBTQ people.
During this year’s vigil, Wyoming Women’s Foundation Director Rebekah Smith shared what it was like being a UW student at the time of Shepard’s murder.
“The student body was completely in shock,” Smith said.
She recalled that the entire campus reflected on the event, and she and some other students went into the Student Union to make armbands to stand against the violence.
Now a generation later, Friday’s attendees mimicked the practice, painting green circles — the international symbol of peace — on yellow ribbons, which were used to symbolize intolerance of violence after the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing.
“It reminds us of where we came from and how important it is to continue to march and organize and fight for equal rights,” said vigil organizer Kevin Rossi. “When you think about it, (Shepard’s) death didn’t happen very long ago.”
The vigil also honored Robbie Ramirez, a Laramie man who died when an Albany County Sheriff’s Office deputy shot him in 2018.
The group observed a moment of silence for Ramirez and Shepard, then another as they read the names of transgender people, people of color and neurodivergent people from across the country who were killed because of discrimination or police violence.
Last year was the most violent on record for transgender people, with 375 killings reported worldwide, according to Forbes.
The Rev. Kenneth Ingram drew attention to the fact that already in 2022, 14 transgender people have been killed in the United States, most women of color.
“I feel like it’s been particularly hard lately,” said Ammon Medina, Deputy Director of Wyoming Equality.
Medina talked about the difficulty of witnessing violent threats to pride events and LGBTQ youth across the country and the risk of increasing polarization during conversations about justice for marginalized peoples.
“I think the answer is to talk to more people we don’t agree with,” Medina said, adding that cisgender, straight white people should be part of the conversations. “The responsibility’s on them, but they won’t take it.”
The group eventually made its way across campus to a bench that displays a plaque in memory of Shepard. People took turns leaving electric candles, flowers and other offerings on the bench, and stood together for a period of silent reflection.
For Eric Quallen, a speaker at the vigil, the event created a much-needed space of support.
“I’m here to remind you that we all need a place to hurt before we can heal,” he said. “Pain is where pride began. Struggle is where pride began. Fighting for the right to exist is where pride began.”