Matthew Shepard was 21 years old when he was tied to a Wyoming fence post and beaten to death because he was gay. This year, his namesake Denver-based foundation is 21, too. We spoke with executive director Jason Marsden about what’s changed—and what hasn’t—in the past two decades.

5280: What was the initial vision of the Matthew Shepard Foundation?
Jason Marsden: When it started, the foundation was in the business of reminding people that hatred is more pervasive and insidious than people think it is. It plays out in grand and petty ways, and it’s all our business to try to counter it. Five years ago, we thought that people had recognized and confronted that reality, that we had it on the run, and that we were prevailing. The election of 2016 and the policy reversals that have occurred for minority identity communities since have reawakened people to the fact that that battle is still going on.

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which is 10 years old this year, seemed like a significant win in that fight. How important was it?
It was the only law passed by the federal government at that time that singled out LGBTQ  persons for recognition and protection rather than discrimination. Every federal law that touched on the population before that was focused on taking away rights rather than establishing them. So from a symbolic standpoint, it is vital. But the most important thing it does is ensure that wherever you are, you are protected.

What’s changed in recent years?
There has been an undercurrent of racial and religious and gendered and sexual and ethnic discrimination in this country that was quiet, and that allowed us to believe that we were winning. I think what happened in the last presidential campaign, but also online and through other forums, sent a signal to people who are discriminatory that they’re not alone. Not only are there more of them than we thought there were, but there are more of them than they thought there were. They are able to signal to one another in a way that emboldens their actions and their speech.

Matthew Shepard. Photo courtesy of the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

How do you fight that?
I go into high schools and talk about empathy. No society functions without it. We’ve got to reach individuals and persuade them that this [hate and violence] is not the way to live. This is not taking you anywhere good. If someone could have gotten to [Shepard’s attackers] before that awful night in Laramie—got into their hearts and said, “Hey, don’t be violent to other people”—I could still be up in Wyoming working on sage-grouse habitat, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. That is the fulcrum. If we can reorient a fraction of our country’s vast potential toward reaching people while they’re young, while it matters, to profoundly reject violence and discrimination, this problem could be solved by Tuesday.

What’s Colorado’s role in all of that?
When I was growing up gay in Wyoming, I looked to Colorado as a place where people could be out. There was a community. There was growth and the promise of a better life. I was right. I think Colorado can offer the nation an example of how what was a conservative Republican state can adopt an enlightened attitude and become more inclusive.

Sounds like you think people—and places—can change.
I do. I couldn’t do this work if I didn’t. Policies can be rolled back, but human beings attaining enlightenment and realizing they have spiritual and moral and ethical power—people never go backward from that.

Kasey Cordell
Kasey Cordell
Kasey Cordell is the former Editorial Projects Director for 5280.