Matthew Shepard’s legacy :: The fight continues
In 1998, the death of 21-year-old University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard (six days after his assault) thrust the matter of violence against LGBTs into the national spotlight. The brutality of his murder (he was beaten and left to die on a fence outside of Laramie, Wyoming) galvanized Americans from all walks of life to demand for extension of hate crimes legislation. Shepard’s two killers -- Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson -- were arrested and charged, but not for a hate crime because Wyoming had no statute for such a crime. In the ensuing weeks following their son’s death, Shepard’s parents -- Judy and Dennis -- became outspoken advocates for the passage of hate crime legislation.
Eleven years to the day after his death (and one day after the National Equality March on Washington, DC), the long-sought goal of securing federal hate crime legislation seems an impending reality.
On Thursday, October 8, the house voted 281 to 146 on legislation which would make it a federal crime to commit assault based on sexual orientation. Bearing Matthew Shepard’s name, and attached to a defense policy bill (which further increases its chances), approval by the senate could come as early as this week - at which point President Obama will sign it into law. Obama reiterated his commitment to that campaign promise at an HRC dinner on Saturday, October 10 -also pledging to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act.
Passage of hate crime legislation appears imminent (thanks in no small part to the efforts of those who became human rights activists as a direct result of the Shepard case). Yet LGBT youth continue to be harassed, bullied, beaten and murdered.
Sharon Stapel, executive director of the Anti Violence Project, notes that even once federal hate crime legislation is enacted, that document will merely ensure prosecution; it won’t change the hearts and minds of the homophobes who commit such crimes. Stapel says the reason such legislation has yet to pass is "for the same reason we have policies such as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and a lack of employment non-discrimination protection and relationship recognition: legalized discrimination rooted in homophobia and transphobia; discrimination that the federal government has to address now, because people are dying at a higher rate than they were when Matthew was killed."
Stapel cites a 2008 LGBT Hate Violence report which found the murder rate was "the highest it’s been since we began reporting on national hate violence in the mid 90s." With increased visibility, says Stapel, comes "increased vulnerability to hate crimes. When you have a national election where gay rights are a central issue, or relationship recognition as a central issue in state races, we see a backlash of bias motivated by hatred."