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  • Photo for Ten Years After Matthew Shepard's Murder: What's Changed, What Hasn't
    Photo Credit: Gina van Hoof

Ten Years After Matthew Shepard's Murder: What's Changed, What Hasn't

By L.K. Regan

On October 12, 1998 a young Wyoming gay man named Matthew Shepard was beaten, tortured, and left tied to a remote fence for the sole reason that he was gay. Eighteen hours later, he was found and taken to a hospital, where he died of his injuries. His death rallied the LGBT community to lobby for the passage of hate-crime legislation to protect gays and lesbians from similar attacks. This month is the ten-year anniversary of his death, and offers an opportunity to remember Matthew, and renew his legacy by looking at the state of LGBT hate crimes legislation. What has changed, what hasn't—and what's next?

Matthew Shepard was a 21 year-old University of Wyoming student on the night of October 6, 1998 when he met Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney at a Laramie bar. The two men gave Shepard a ride at the end of the night; according to the testimony of their girlfriends at their trials, they had voiced an intention of robbing a gay man at some point. According to the prosecutor, they pretended to be gay to lure Shepard to their car. By their own defense, they had been stricken by "gay panic", a supposed form of insanity brough on by Shepard's alleged sexual advances. They robbed Shepard, beat him, tortured him, tied him to a fence post, and left him for dead. He was found the next day by a bicyclist, but was in a coma with severe brain injuries. He died in hospital several days later.

Shepard's death awakened many Americans to the threats faced by gay men and women and transgendered people on a daily basis. Yet hate crimes in the U.S. have remained high in the decade since Shepard's death. In 1998, the year Shepard was murdered, there were 1260 hate crimes committed for reasons of sexual orientation in the U.S., according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports. The total number of hate crimes for that year was 7,722—comparable to the 7,755 incidents reported in 2006, the most recent year for which statistics are available. In 2006, the FBI collected data on a total of 1195 hate crimes, almost exactly as many as reported the year Shepard was murdered. These statistics only help to emphasize the importance of hate crime legislation.

For the last ten years, Shepard's family and the LGBT community have seen his death as a symbol for the project of passing hate crime laws. Leglisation adding gays and lesbians to the groups protected by existing hate-crime laws has been introduced to the U.S. Congress on several occasions, beginning in the Clinton administration—but it has met with only limited success. Last year, the Matthew Shepard Act was introduced in both houses of Congress. It would add gender identity and sexual identity to the protected categories—though if it passes during the Bush administration it faces nearly certain veto. In the individual states the picture is equally mixed. Forty-five of the fifty states have some legislation protecting people from crime motivated by racism or other bias; thirty-two of those include sexual orientation as a protected category. That they do so is a tribute to the progress made in LGBT activism in recent years. Still, Wyoming—Shepard's home state—has no hate crime laws at all. To check on the laws in your state, and find out which groups are protected where you live, use the Anti-Defamation League's interactive map.

Shepard's legacy is not limited to the pursuit of the legislation in his name. His parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation in memory of their son. The mission of the Foundation is, "To support diversity programs in education and to help youth organizations establish environments where young people can feel safe and be themselves." In honor of Matthew's death this year, the Foundation launched a new program, "The Campaign to Erase Hate." The purpose is, according to the Foundation's web page, "providing young people with a voice and the resources needed to live a healthy and hate-free life. The 'Campaign to Erase Hate' will utilize MatthewsPlace.com, a youth-designed website launched by the Foundation last fall, to involve young people in the campaign. Plans include working with various social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, to tap into the growing trends of on how young people communicate with each other." Each participant in the Campaign will be asked to "raise themselves to the power of ten" by enlisting 10 others to join.

"The philosophy of the campaign," Judy Shepard explains, "is to start with individuals in the community who can put a face on the impact of hate. Then, if those people engage ten of their friends who then engage ten of their friends, we will quickly reach our goal of changing the hearts and minds of one million people. Your voice is the most powerful tool in erasing hate." So far, the Coors Brewing Corporation has signed on to match the first $25,000 raised on the Campaign's website, setting the Foundation off on an auspicious start.

Still, there is no denying that, even 10 years later, Shepard's legacy is fighting an uphill battle. Judy Shepard herself discovered this when confronted by hateful letters written to her local Cheyenne, Wyoming newspaper in response to an article marking the anniversary of her son's death. In an open letter posted on the Foundation's website, Judy Shepard writes, "The continuing belief that what happened to Matt was not a hate crime and the notion that 'special people shouldn't have special rights', is beyond my comprehension." Her solution: get out the vote. "We are all aware of how important this election cycle is to all of us," she writes. "Please take the time to know the issues and what is at stake for the LGBT community. Share your stories with those who care about you. It is the only way they will know how to vote to support you. The privilege of having the right to vote is also a responsibility. We must remember that we are not voting only for a new President but also for representatives at the local, county, state and national level." It may be that the best way to honor Matthew Shepard's life is in the voting booth on election day.