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20 years later, death of Matthew Shepard has proved pivotal in fight for LGBT rights

Oct. 12 (UPI) — Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming college student whose brutal death 20 years ago Friday was a harbinger of the fight against hate crime in the United States, will be reinterred later this month in Washington, D.C.

Shepard was a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie when he died on Oct. 12, 1998, nearly a week after he was beaten and left for dead by two men — in a case that brought substantial attention to violence against LGBT persons and one that would eventually help advance hate crime legislation in the United States.

Since their son’s death, Judy and Dennis Shepard have worked to bring awareness to such crimes by starting the Matthew Shepard Foundation and advocating for the passage in 2009 of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

On Oct. 26, Shepard’s ashes will be interred in a crypt at the Washington National Cathedral in a private ceremony following a service honoring his life. His parents say it’s a move they’ve long contemplated.

“We’ve given much thought to Matt’s final resting place, and we found the Washington National Cathedral is an ideal choice, as Matt loved the Episcopal church and felt welcomed by his church in Wyoming,” Judy Shepard said.

“For the past 20 years, we have shared Matt’s story with the world. It’s reassuring to know he now will rest in a sacred spot where folks can come to reflect on creating a safer, kinder world.”

A brutal hate crime

Born Dec. 1, 1976, in Casper, Wyo., Matthew Shepard attended high school at The American School in Switzerland after moving to Saudi Arabia with his parents.

“Matt had a great passion for equality,” the Matthew Shepard Foundation said. “His experiences abroad fueled his love for travel and gave him the chance to make many new friends from around the world.”

Shepard eventually returned to Wyoming to study political science, foreign relations and languages. Dennis Shepard said his son was “a mischievous, stubborn and argumentative child,” but said it was his dream to work for the State Department “to try to bring the same privileges and rights he thought he had in America to other countries.”

Judy said her son revealed his sexuality to her over the phone years before his death. Her response — “What took you so long to tell me?”

“Rejection was not ever an issue in our family,” she said in an interview with ABC News’ Nightline, recalling that her son lived an openly out life. Dennis said he told everybody he met, “Just to let you know ahead of time, I’m gay.”

“It was like, ‘This is who I am, and that’s the way it’s going to be,” his mother said.

On the night of Oct. 6, 1998, Shepard stopped at a bar in Laramie and was approached by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Police said they abducted him and drove him to a remote area. There, they tied him to a fence and beat him with the butt of a pistol. McKinney and Henderson later said they posed as gay to gain Shepard’s trust.

The pair left a bloodied and badly beaten Shepard tied to the fence after the attack. He wasn’t found for 18 hours, when a passing cyclist initially mistook him for a scarecrow. He was taken to Poudre Valley Hospital in Colorado — where his parents, who’d been in Saudi Arabia, flew immediately to find their son in dire condition.

Judy Shepard said she remembers Matthew “all bandaged, face swollen, stitches everywhere.”

“His fingers curled, toes curled, one eye was a little bit open,” she said.

Shepard died six days later. His father said that’s when he, his family and the rest of the world awoke to the reality of hate violence against LGBT persons.

“We didn’t realize the amount of violence and discrimination … against the gay community until after he died,” Dennis said. “We thought, he was born here … he has all the rights, responsibilities, duties and privileges of every other American citizen.”

Matthew Shepard Foundation

Shepard’s parents received an outpouring of support after Matthew’s death and eventually amassed about $140,000, which they used to start the Matthew Shepard Foundation — a LGBT nonprofit that runs education, outreach and advocacy programs.

“They didn’t need help paying for Matthew’s funeral and at the time in 1998,” foundation spokeswoman Sara Grossman told UPI. “That was kind of a very pivotal moment in America where people were woken up.

“People who either turned a blind eye to the plight of the LGBT community — or people who were ignorant, whether willfully or just because — they didn’t know this kind of hatred was a thing in America. And the Matthew Shepard case ended up being a window into that.”

For 20 years, the Shepard Foundation has worked to bolster hate crimes legislation and provide support for LGBT youths through various online resources and in-person speaking engagements.

As part of its training program, the foundation sends its programs director — who used to oversee the FBI’s civil rights division — to cities where hate crimes are either a rare or frequent occurrence.

“We go down and give lessons to law enforcement on how to be better allies and be better in taking these crimes on without bias,” Grossman said. “Or we go and have conversations with folks who are in the community — those who might be the victims of the hate crimes and we talk to them about the importance of reporting and why it’s so essential.”

The foundation has also produced two stage plays — The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, which tell the stories of those affected by Shepard’s death. The productions are based on interviews by members of the Tectonic Theater Project in New York City.

As part of its program, the foundation sends project coordinators to U.S. high schools, community theaters and other venues to provide instruction and resources to put on the plays.

“Since July 2016, over 350 productions of The Laramie Project have been performed worldwide and that’s only the ones that we know of. So that essentially makes it one every other day over the last two years,” Grossman said.

Additionally, the foundation runs an online blog known as “Matthew’s Place” for LGBT youth to share stories and experiences.

“It’s a great resource for kids coming out, parents who really want to learn about the experience of their kids or their kids’ friends, and it’s a great way for them all to connect,” said Grossman.

Guarding LGBT rights

Shepard’s story and his parents’ activism ultimately led to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in October 2009, more than a decade after Matthew’s death. It gave the Justice Department new powers to investigate and prosecute defendants who prey on victims based on race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

“It took 11 years … but Judy made it happen,” Grossman said.

David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, said the law was first introduced before Shepard’s death and went through 14 floor votes before Congress sent it to Obama’s desk.

He added, Shepard’s death helped bring attention to a need for federal protections, after the Laramie Police Department was forced to lay off officers because of the cost of the investigation.

“It really became clear that there was a need for the government to become involved in particularly high profile hate crimes in order to be able to bring justice,” he told UPI. “Matthew’s death really was a catalyst for public support for federal legislation.”

In addition to allowing the federal government to assist in hate crime investigations, Stacy said the law also changed how local jurisdictions treat such cases.

“Those crimes are now taken more seriously … because if the local jurisdiction doesn’t do that, the federal government can come in and bring charges to the case — and no local government wants to have the federal government come in and take the case,” he said.

Additionally, the law allows the Justice Department and FBI to get involved in hate crimes investigations from the start.

“Being involved from the start of an investigation makes a huge difference in outcomes,” Stacy said. “The sooner after a crime happens that you are investigating it, the more likely you are to find the perpetrator and to bring justice effectively and to find all the evidence to be able to make the case.”

Continuing the fight

The Hate Crimes Prevention Act took a step toward preventing tragedies like Shepard’s, but advocates say more steps are needed to fully ensure the safety of the gay community.

Grossman said the law isn’t perfect, and one major flaw is it lacks a provision that requires reporting of hate crimes.

“Sometimes that’s because the people who are taking these crimes don’t know that they are hate crimes,” she said. “They don’t know how to recognize bias-motivated incidents, and that’s a huge reason why we’re out in the field teaching them.”

Stacy said the current system of voluntary reporting, which requires local jurisdictions and their officers to collect information and report it to the federal government, has resulted in a “huge amount” of under-reporting.

“You have major jurisdictions that are over 100,000 people who affirmatively sometimes report zero hate crimes, and it’s just not credible that a community with 100,000 people did not have a hate crime in the prior year,” he said.

Another factor that contributes to under-reporting, he said, is a lack of protection against reprisals — a provision that would prevent LGBT people from retaliation like losing their jobs, being evicted from their homes or denial of other things like credit or healthcare.

“We think that only about one-third of hate crimes are reported, and that can be for similar reasons,” Grossman said. “People who report their hate crimes, that could end up being public news — your boss finds out and sees it on the news and you get fired. And you’re out of both your job safety as well as your personal safety and dignity.”

Last year, the bipartisan Equality Act was introduced in Congress to update existing civil rights law to expressly include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics.

“The best thing people can do is vote in this election,” Stacy said. “Vote for candidates that support the Equality Act, support LGBTQ equality, including transgender military service, the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act and the host of other things that would make a difference in people’s lives.”


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