Matthew Shepard's violent death in 1998 became a rallying point in the gay rights movement.
Matthew Shepard Foundation/AP
Matthew Shepard's violent death in 1998 became a rallying point in the gay rights movement.

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Matthew Shepard's murder became a lightning rod in the gay rights movement in the 90s

Seventeen years later Laramie, Wyoming passed a LGBT anti-discrimination bill

(CNN) —  

In 1998, after Matthew Shepard was found tied to a fence, beaten, burned and left in a comatose state with a fractured skull, his murder became a seminal point in the gay rights movement.

A generation later, Laramie, Wyoming, the city where Shepard died, is passing legislation combating LBGT discrimination.

The Laramie Non-discrimination Ordinance was passed Wednesday in a 7 to 2 vote by the Laramie City Council. It prohibits discrimination against the LGBT community in housing, workplace and public accommodations.

Jeran Artery, chairman of Wyoming Equality, a group fighting for LGBT rights statewide, was present during the city council vote and said the room erupted with applause and cheering when the ordinance passed, and he said some city council members had looks of joy on their faces. “They knew they were making history.”

Although the tragedy took place almost two decades ago, Laramie is making history by passing Wyoming’s first nondiscrimination ordinance.

Jason Marsden, executive director at the Matthew Shepard foundation, said it took years of support and community engagement to get this ordinance passed. “It is terrific that Laramie did this. There was a huge groundswell. It was local democracy,” he said. “The vote on Wednesday was the final step on a really thorough grassroots effort.”

Judy Shepard, mother and founder of the Denver-based organization that bears her son’s name, has continued championing equal rights issues since the 21-year-old’s death.

“I’m thrilled that Laramie’s doing it, at the same time sort of saddened that the state of Wyoming can’t see fit to do that as well,” Shepard told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C., Wednesday before the council vote. “Maybe the rest of Wyoming will understand this is about fellow human beings and not something that’s other than what they are.”

Many are shocked that it took 17 years for Laramie to pass such a bill, but Artery said it’s better late than never. “We’re in one of the most conservative states.” A broader anti-discrimination bill passed the Wyoming Senate, but failed at the House in a 33 to 26 vote earlier this year.

Although anti-discrimination bills haven’t been passed on the state-level, local activists brought the ordinance to Laramie a year ago, hoping to rally municipal support from community members, businesses and elected officials. “I think it is up to our communities to pass these ordinances when the legislator couldn’t get it done,” Artery said.

Laramie has been an important city for the Shepard family, who continue to reside there, Marsden said. “Matt lived there and worked there. Both his parents went to the University of Wyoming. It’s a really progressive community and it is a tragedy that Matt’s death is associated with the town,” he told CNN.

“Don’t focus on how long it took, but that is was brought to the attention of city council members. We are focusing on the fact that it is happening and that is inspiring other people as well.”

Wednesday’s successful vote is just the beginning for Wyoming, Marsden said. Support for anti-discrimination measures are already being pushed in Cheyenne, the state’s largest city.

“Over time, it will really depend on whether people in other communities and their elected officials want to protect LGBT citizens. Right now though, it’s one foot forward.”