The world's response to the murder of Matthew Shepard was quick and horrified. One among the reporters who arrived by the planeload to size up the state announced to the television camera, ''Hate: it's a common word in Wyoming.'' Beth Loffreda was horrified herself, all the more so because she was the faculty adviser to the gay students' organization at the University of Wyoming, where Shepard had just enrolled, but as a recent arrival in the state she recoiled, too, at the assault on her new home.
Loffreda opens ''Losing Matt Shepard'' by saying, ''Perhaps the first thing to know about Laramie, Wyo., is that it is beautiful.'' She acknowledges the shriveling of opportunity that has left some people living in cars and tents, grasping at menial jobs, demeaned by domestic violence and methamphetamine and, for racial minorities, frozen out by banal humiliations. But she is immensely moved by the moral sense of people who, even if they had viewed homosexuality as a bicoastal disorder, were impelled by the murder to examine their own prejudices.
The book describes Matthew Shepard -- physically slight, immediately personable, expensively dressed -- and his killers, one malevolent without pause and the other more hapless. But this account is more ethnography than true-crime story, and more interested in the audience than the actors.
Loffreda, who is straight, seems a bit dazzled by her gay and lesbian subjects, describing them, as individuals in a persecuted group are often described, as wise, thoughtful, sensitive and funny. And despite a self-deprecating allowance for her status as a university type, she shows the campus-activist faith that there is no evil that cannot be cured by a workshop. Yet Loffreda is hardly unsophisticated. She takes quick note of symbolism and ritual, and of the media's power to fashion a reality apart from the occurrence of a murder, a reality that was subject to change, in popular perception as in physics, because it was being watched.
And the whole world was watching…