When his father, an oil rig safety inspector, took a job in Saudi Arabia, Shepard left Wyoming as a teen to finish high school in Lugano, Switzerland, near the Italian border. His extensive travels - including two years of high school in Switzerland - cultivated an international outlook that gave him pause about attending college in a windswept Wyoming cow town.
Shepard returned to the United States and attended Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., but left before the end of the first semester. He enrolled at Casper College in the spring of 1997 and afterward spent about a year in Denver, working odd jobs.
Despite his friendly demeanor, though, Shepard has been targeted for abuse before. He'd been harassed, and was an easy target because he's so small and fit too many of the physical stereotypes people think of as gay.
Part of Shepard's decision to move to Laramie stemmed from his desire to be in a place where he could feel safe. Chances of a hate crime happening in Denver are relatively high, and Matthew being the fragile-looking man that he was, it could happen easy.
Shepard decided to move back to Wyoming last spring, and later enrolled at the University of Wyoming - his father's alma mater - with a political science major and a minor in foreign languages.
A friend said he had to overcome concerns about how his sexual orientation would be accepted before he returned to Wyoming -- which is nicknamed the Equality State because it was the first state to let women vote, serve on juries and hold public office -- for college.
Laramie changed his mind.
Coming from overseas, he was not convinced this was where he wanted to be. But just a week ago he said he was so glad he picked the University of Wyoming. He talked about how unusual a course he'd taken to get here. And he talked about feeling safe for the first time.
He had a lot of the same fears other people have coming into a small community. When he left Wyoming he had just started dealing with being gay. So he was very concerned about the attitudes when he first came back.
But he really felt at home and comfortable here. He felt this was the place to be right now.
Matt was a very gentle, really intelligent, and fun-loving guy moving toward admirable goals: to finish school, to work in the international arena and, to fall in love and have a relationship - just like everybody else and incredibly intelligent. He liked to talk about politics, more than just chit-chat stuff. He was a sharp dresser who enjoyed dancing and socializing. Shepard also had a long-standing interest in theater, and participated in several drama productions while growing up in Wyoming. Everybody liked him.
He was "out" to selected friends and to the gay community, but he didn't announce he was gay to the world. He was concerned with gay issues, but not actively involved in the politics around those issues. Speculating on why Shepard might have left the bar with strangers, friends dismissed the possibility that he might have been lured by bogus sexual advances. Matt was not the kind who had casual sex, he was not interested in any way in that part of gay culture.
He was just a real caring person, an easy person to get along with. Matt has always been there for his friends - he did even lent money to some of them. If anything happened, he was there.
Several people said Shepard described his career goal as a foreign service job, perhaps a position in an embassy, where he could exercise his interest in human rights and international affairs. His real, sincere goal about trying to better humanity. That's what he wanted to dedicate his life to. That sums up his personality really well.
Matthew was not very large, at 5'2" 110 pounds, but he had a big heart and was extremely brave. He had the courage to live honestly and openly in less than ideal circumstances. Unfortunately, like many gay men and lesbians, there is often a high price to pay for living a life of dignity and respect.