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for people who care about the West

A parade becomes a memorial after a murder

Laramie, Wyoming, wrestles with the hate in its midst when a gay student is beaten to death.


People line the curb all the way to First Street, waiting under yellow cottonwoods and a wide blue sky, on a day that seems especially made for a Homecoming Parade. Beyond First Street, a freight train moves slowly between the edge of town and the prairie that lifts to the snowy peaks of the Medicine Bow Mountains. The crowd edges forward, and here comes the University of Wyoming Cowboy marching band. Heads high, they step to the rhythm of the big bass drums. Children cover their ears against the bright blasts of trumpets, while a little boy in a red plaid coat directs the music with a stick, then points the stick at the marchers and fires off a single shot.

Wyoming’s mascot, “Cowboy Joe,” plods by, a shaggy pony led by four young women in canvas barn coats and cowboy hats. Then, in careful order, politicians perched on the backsides of convertibles; the university president, young and grim; members of the student government, dancing on the floor of a flatbed truck. Everyone in the parade wears a strip of pale yellow cloth. Cloth strips tie back long hair, decorate cowboy hats, dangle from belt loops, fly from the antennae of the classic cars, encircle people’s arms. The yellow cloth is a reminder of Matt Shepard, a University of Wyoming freshman hospitalized on life-support machines. Yesterday, his skull was smashed by the butt-end of a pistol.

The fence where Matthew Shepard was left no longer stands in Laramie, Wyoming.

A loudspeaker mounted on a truck broadcasts the “Old Chisholm Trail,” and here comes the University of Wyoming rodeo team in a pickup truck, followed by the governor of Wyoming, wearing a cowboy hat, waving to the crowd. Young men march by, carrying cheerleaders on their shoulders. W! Y! O! they shout, and people along the street clap and cheer for these young people, so joyous and alive that it seems as if their whole lives have led them to this triumphant day. Coma ti yi yippee yippee yea.

The bicyclists who found Matt thought at first he was a scarecrow, strung up on a buck-and-rail fence on the edge of town, hanging limp from his spread-eagle arms, shards of skull and tufts of hair sticking out of his head like straw. But he was a human being after all — a young gay man, lured from a bar, tied to a fence, pistol-whipped, and left for dead. Police have four young people in custody and they are investigating gingerly, not saying much, but they think they know the motive for this crime. Children pull against their parents’ hands because here come the horses, sleek and black, with sumptuous saddles and glittering riders. The horses prance and pace, shying at candy wrappers caught in the wind. A pretty girl on rollerblades glides behind the horses, carrying a shovel and pushing a wheelbarrow of manure.


Now around the corner comes the Laramie High School Plainsmen marching band, with yellow ribbons tied around their arms. The students’ eyes are fixed on their music and their foreheads are creased with thought, each teenager trying hard not to be the one who is out of step. A long, recurved blast on a whistle, and the band begins a 50s tune. Wa wa wa wa wonder/why/you went away, but the Plainsmen have begun playing before the speaker-truck has disappeared around the corner, and the songs get all tangled up together — I’ll tell you of my troubles/And I wonder/on the Old Chisholm Trail/why why why why wonder/Coma ti yi yippee yippee yea — until the truck turns the corner and the Kappa Sigma snow shovel marching band lopes down the street, dragging snow shovels that drown out the Drifters.

A few more politicians pass by, some fraternity floats, and now here comes a banner  REMEMBER MATT SHEPARD  and behind that, a disorganized crowd of people. First come students from the University of Wyoming’s gay community and their friends. Following them come families linked arm-in-arm, babies riding on their fathers’ shoulders, students, professors, small children running to keep up, dogs with yellow strips of fabric on their collars, middle-aged women wearing homecoming chrysanthemums, their faces contorted with the struggle to keep from crying.

Protestors marched near the University of Wyoming after the brutal beating of Matthew Shepard in 1998.
Tim Chestnut

People carry signs: “Hate is not a small town value.” “Laramie says NO to violence and evil.” Two parents swing their small son along between them. He squeals with pleasure. A young woman walks alone, weeping. A man carries a dog in his arms. The bystanders clap sporadically at first, not sure what to do, but as the crowd of people passes and the street empties in front of them, bystanders step off the curb and fall in behind the marchers.

From both sides of the street, lines of people peel into formation, watchers becoming marchers, and the parade grows and grows, like a Virginia reel gathering dancers, up Ivinson Avenue, past the tack shop, down Second Street, east on Grand Avenue toward the football stands. They walk up the street, shoulder to shoulder, the men and the women and the children and the dogs, as if they could drive evil onto the prairie where the wind would catch it up and tear it to pieces; as if they could bring a boy back to life; as if their rhythmic, moving feet could reverse the clock and Matt’s skull would slowly come back together, shards of bone knitting into his head. Blood would disappear back into his eyes, and his hair would smooth, and his arms would tense along the fence, and he would be pleading for his life, and there would still be time to save him. But of course it’s a day too late and everybody knows it.

For the last three years, legislators have voted down hate-crime legislation, because they saw no hate in Wyoming. And already, following the parade a discreet distance behind, is an enormous machine with a rotating brush on each side and a vacuum in the middle, moving slowly down the street. Candy wrappers, nuggets of horse manure, campaign fliers and yellow strips of cloth disappear under the sweeper, and behind it, the street is immaculate and deserted.

Kathleen Dean Moore, a philosophy professor at Oregon State University, is currently on research leave at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. She is the author of Riverwalking, a collection of essays.