Entertainment » Culture

Matthew Shepard’s legacy :: The fight continues

by Scott Stiffler
Monday Oct 12, 2009

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.

Imminent passage

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."


  • Bill Blazak, 2009-10-12 12:35:30

    Here’s the thing. A lot of whining about "hate crime" legislation. But McKinney and Henderson are still in prison for the rest of their lives. What more do you folks want? The death penalty? I’m fine with that but the death penalty given over life imprisonment merely for motivation will never survive constitutional muster. "Hate crimes" is a very nice sounding feel-good thingie, but what does it accomplish really. Crime is crime and the punishment should fit the action, not the reason behind it.

  • Anonymous, 2009-10-12 12:59:45

    I can’t speak for "you folks," but I’m opposed to the death penalty altogether. It’s interesting to me that the only time I seem to see or hear this kind of argument is when it’s applied to the LGBTQ community. No one seems to oppose hate crimes legislation when it applies to women, racial/ethnic minorities, police officers, etc.

  • Anonymous, 2009-10-12 13:04:07

    You dont understand the law obviously BB because murder does matter as to motivation as does the sentence for committing the crime. if you plan to do it, it’s worse than if you do it in the heat of a moment. And yes motivation does make a difference in the place of the death penalty just look at any state laws. Manslaughter and usually homicide 2nd degree do not carry the heaviest of penalties because of the lack of planning to kill. It’s obvious that Matthew Shepard was killed for nothing other than his sexual orientation. People dont choose to be gay; who would choose to be bullied, harassed, and face hatred? The sooner we all realize this the sooner America can focus on what needs to be focused on rather than hatred and putting down of eachother.

  • Anonymous, 2009-10-12 18:34:21

    @ bb mens rea is a necessary element in murder trial it essentially means (guilty mind) but in a more accurate complete def in our legal system it means that the defendant knew that what he was doing was wrong s/he had "guilty" mind if Hate Crimes Law is passed then committing a crime based on gender, sexual orientation, religion, law enforcement status, will carry a heavier punishment because it is simply wrong to single one out based on things that we as a society have determined it is illegal to discriminate against... and worse yet to single them out for the purpose of committing a crime against them. So hate crime legislation is very important.. even if they original perpetrators of Mathew Shepard wouldn’t spend another day in jail... those who would follow their example will. I lived in Laramie... I never would have though we needed hate crimes legislation... I’m so thankful Mathew’s parents stuck with this!

  • Anonymous, 2009-10-12 19:05:23

    and perhaps even more importantly, we have to fight for education within our schools on the principles of respect for all people. our kids get this training regarding people of different races, religions, ethnicities and handicaps. yet we’re a long ways still from having respect for gay people being taught within the public schools. it’s considered a ’gay agenda’. because today is the anniversary of matthew shepard’s death, there are clips all over the internet about the group that ellen degeneres is associated with, to educate people about the children, ages 11-14, who commit suicide because they can’t take the teasing and taunting anymore. seeing those clips makes it even more apparent that we need to start with very young children. i know-big uphill fight, but i also know that being teased for ’acting gay’ starts around 1st grade. happened to my best friend when i was a child 40 years ago, happened to my son 20 years ago, happens to my students today.

  • Anonymous, 2009-10-13 13:29:06

    First of all, I don’t think any of you understand what this fight/discussion is about. Matthew Sheppard represents equality with in the country. Yes, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson are in prison, but that does no erase the fact that Matthew Sheppard died for being gay, or that LGBT hate crimes are still happening everyday. This maybe a poor allegory, but I compeer the gay right to those of African American right during the Civil Rights. Homosexuals are the "Niger" of today. Instead of using that awful word they call us "Faggots." And in response to the prison violation, what is the point of having them sit in a four by four jail sail? My hard earned tax dollars go to work to feed the scum of the planet! There are men in California who are serving two life sentences, two ninety year sentences, one forty year sentence, and one two year. What is the point of that? I propose that people in jail die the same way they kill their victims, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson would be beat and tied to a fence left to die.

Add New Comment

Comments on Facebook