Wednesday, October 12, 2016

October 12 - Matthew Shepard

Matthew Shepard

It's hard to explain the impact of Matthew Shepard's death to someone who didn't experience it firsthand. Though I was very young when Matthew was brutally beaten, tortured, and left for dead tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyoming on October 6, 1998, I remember the whole thing very clearly. I remember the newspaper covers of lit candles, Matthew's boyish, smiling face, framed by blonde bangs, in the inset. Matthew forced America to confront itself in all its hate and prejudice, beginning in the very places (the South, the Midwest) where LGBT people were most invisible.

Matthew Shepard succumbed to his injuries 18 years ago today, but his death sparked a national outrage against the treatment of LGBT people that is responsible for many of the rights we have in 2016. His murder brought national attention to the hate crime laws at the state and federal level. (On the other hand, it also popularized the "gay panic" defense for committing a crime, in which straight criminals pleaded temporary insanity due to the rage of being subject to a gay sexual advance.) Matthew's murderers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, were found guilty, but they were not found guilty of a hate crime since no such legislation existed defining sexuality in those terms. Matthew's family and allies fought tirelessly for sexuality to be included in the tenets of a hate crime, and President Clinton even pushed to extend hate crime legislation to those who are LGBT in 1999; it was rejected by the House. The bill came up once again in 2007, titled the Matthew Shepard Act, and was passed by both bodies of Congress but was later dropped when President Bush threatened to veto it. Through 2008, Nancy Pelosi fought for the bill to finally be adopted, which it eventually was on October 28, 2009 under President Obama, over a decade after it was first introduced. The act expands the 1969 hate crime law to include crimes motivated by sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, and disability. It also gives federal authorities greater ability to engage in prosecution of perceived hate crimes which local authorities choose not to pursue, and it requires the FBI to track statistics on hate crimes based on gender or gender identity (which were not previously tracked).

Beyond the Matthew Shepard Act, his death also lead to the formation of several charities and educational programs, including the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which Judy and Dennis Shepard created with the aim to affect positive change through outreach, education and advocacy; and Matthew's Place, an online resource for LGBT youth. Over the past 18 years, Matthew has become a kind of symbol for change, as well as a cautionary tale of what can happen when hate consumes us. But behind that symbol is a person, a boy who barely got to become a man when his life was tragically stolen from him at the age of 21, and a boy who never got to see all the good the world could do when we see our common humanity first instead of our differences.

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