Platteville commemorates Matthew Shepard with candlelight vigil

Stop the Hate hosted event to remember the tragic anniversary of 20-year-old hate crime

The University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s Stop the Hate Campaign hosted a candlelight vigil on Oct. 7 to remember the murder of Matthew Shepard. Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, was assulted on Oct. 7, 1998.  Two men attacked him, inflicting severe head trauma and tying him to a fence post in a field to die. UW-Platteville students and faculty took time to pause and reflect on a rainy Sunday evening for the 20th anniversary of his death, focused on learning about the impact the tragedy had on the development of LGBTQ rights. 

“It hit me that the event was 20 years ago,” coordinator of the Stop the Hate Initiative Val Wetzel said. “For our freshman students, they weren’t even born when it happened. If we can help to educate and find a way to stop hate through conversation, then that will save lives.”

“To foster an inclusive environment at UW-Platteville or anywhere, it is important to offer training and an education in these topics,” junior criminal justice and accounting major Kristen Hephner said. “Students can take this knowledge into the world once they graduate; and wherever they end up, they will always have that experience to help others.”

Wetzel and Hephner were the primary organizers for the event. They sought out speakers to join in leading the candle vigil. Eight students and faculty members spoke at the event, reading poetry and telling stories about their connection to hate and bias incidents or about the impact that Shepard’s death had on their lives.

“After talking to students, I found that several people didn’t know who Shepard was,” assistant professor of English and coordinator of gay studies Dr. Pip Gordon said. “In the past 20 years, this narrative has faded from view. This event was something that people, regardless of their ages at the time, knew about. In 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James J. Byrd Hate Crimes Act was passed. It is interesting to see how much this narrative has faded over the past 20 years and it is wise to remind ourselves that we aren’t talking about the distant past.”

Improved legislation to protect people against hate crimes took time to gain traction after Shepard’s death. Throughout the early 2000’s, hate crime legislation was inconsistent at the state level and relatively week federally. Representation for LGBTQ people in the news was frequently problematic because it focused on negative stereotypes and victimization. While members of the LGBTQ community still face challenges, efforts continue at UW-Platteville and across the United States through programs like Stop the Hate to provide justice and protection for all people. 

Stop the Hate is hosting a conference on Oct. 11 for students to learn more about the initiative and ways to address hate.