Western Wyoming Community College history student Melia Dayley knows that professional historians and history buffs can make for a tough audience. But Dayley will take the challenge of presenting original historical research one step further this Saturday when she presents her year-long project – “Shepards of Change: The Legacy of Matthew Shepard” – at the University of Wyoming’s Undergraduate Research Day in Laramie this weekend.
Dayley will present in Room 207 of the Classroom Building on UW’s Laramie campus at 12:40 p.m. on Saturday, April 30.
Shepard was a student at UW in 1998 when he was robbed, tied to a fence, beaten, and left to die by two other young men. That tragic crime, which many believed the perpetrators committed because Shepard was gay, drew national attention to the issue of hate crimes and to Wyoming.
It’s this “hate-crime narrative,” and the social change that narrative inspired, that Dayley, a native of Sugar City, Idaho, explores in her research. But her project does touch on the controversial idea that Shepard’s murder might have been related to a drug deal gone wrong rather than his sexual orientation. It’s a theory that has been explored in books and documentaries about the case, but Dayley emphasized that her research project is concerned with how the hate-crime narrative took hold and inspired social change, regardless of its veracity.
“My research isn’t to determine whether it was a hate crime or whether it wasn’t,” Dayley said. “My research is to determine how the (hate-crime narrative) was created, the impacts, and the legacy. But the evidence (against it being a hate crime) was present at that time, but because it was traumatic, everyone focused on the hate-crime thing. It’s not until recently that lawyers and police that were involved in that are kind of saying, ‘Well, there were indications that it was not a hate crime.’ And actually, the defendants, (Aaron) Henderson and (Russell) McKinney, said it was a hate crime in the beginning, and then went back on their word, and then said it was, and went back on their word. So it’s a very, very complex narrative.”
As her presentation’s title states, it’s the legacy of Shepard’s murder and the public perceptions of its genesis that interested Dayley from the time that she read Beth Loffreda’s account of the tragedy, Losing Matt Shepard, published in 2000, in a U.S. History class with Assistant Professor of History and Political Science Dr. Jessica Clark.
“I’m looking at that historically, about the hate-crime narrative and how it was created through traumatic memory, collectively and individually, and how the media kind of spurred this hate-crime narrative, and how it’s become a legacy in Wyoming,” Dayley said. “It’s about how bills were created because of this. How churches changed their stance on things because of him. How the media reported, because of the way he was murdered and because he was gay. So it’s looking back on an event with present-day knowledge and present-day perspectives.
“I haven’t ever really studied LGBT history, but I thought that if I was going to be interested in politics, this is a huge deal in politics right now, and I need to become an informed citizen and historian about this,” she continued. “That was a Wyoming narrative that people here knew about, and I had tons of resources on it at the university archives. So the research was there, and it interested me because it was so controversial, but at the same time not, because everyone said it was a hate crime, even though there was so much evidence against that, but we don’t talk about that. And there is so much politics involved in it, which I like. So the combination of all that made me want to study it.”
Dayley has already presented “Shepards of Change” twice this month, once at the Western Social Science Association Annual Conference in Reno, Nev., and again at the Western Undergraduate Research Symposium on April 22, where she won Best Undergraduate Poster Presentation. She said the opportunity to present at a professional conference with graduate students and Ph.D.-level researchers was intimidating but also exhilarating. Dayley also participated on a panel discussion during that conference.
“It just speaks volumes about Dr. Jessica Clark and Western that I can run with them at the same level, at the same conference,” Dayley said. “You have to get accepted into it, and I got accepted the same way they did. I loved it, and I want to go back again.”
Western offers numerous undergraduate research opportunities to students in the hard sciences and social sciences. Dayley is one of many WWCC students who will present original work at UW’s Wyoming Undergraduate Research Day. She knows that she may encounter strong alternative viewpoints at her presentation in Laramie and said that she is prepared to defend her work.
“My paper will probably be very controversial there,” Dayley said, adding that Dr. Clark has worked with her and other student researchers on how to handle questions and challenges effectively during an academic presentation. “She has taught me that I have to remain unemotional. If I become defensive, or use words that sound defensive, then immediately I am engaging with them and then they think they’ve got me. That’s what we’re practicing for UW, because that’s going to happen, for sure, definitely. But also, it’s just always being prepared and knowing my research. If I say I’m an expert, I need to actually be one.”
Dayley, who is transferring to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, after graduating from Western in May, began college with the intention of becoming a teacher. But her first love has always been history, so it didn’t take long for her to change direction.
“I’ve loved history since I started reading. It’s just kind of been my thing,” she said. “For Christmas, I would ask for history books instead of toys.”