Matthew Shepard was brutally assaulted on a lonely ridge overlooking Laramie, Wyoming twelve years ago this month. And on this day in 1998, he died while in a coma in a Fort Collins, CO, hospital with his family by his side.
Much has changed. Much has not.
His hate crime murder has set the pattern by which all LGBTQ hate crimes murder victims are remembered, both for good and ill.
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Good, in that many American’s are more keenly aware of the problem of anti-LGBTQ hate crimes and the issues surrounding the struggle for human rights equality because of his death.
Millions of people around the world came to know about other hate crimes murder victims through the lens of Matthew’s story. His family foundation, The Matthew Shepard Foundation, has done untold good advocating for justice, equality and the embrace of diversity in American life.
His mother, Judy Shepard, has become one of the most visible and effective spokespeople for human rights in our time–a true conscience for the nation. It is no mistake that the long-awaited federal hate crimes law, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, is named in honor of Matthew, largely through the dogged persistence of this estimable woman who will not take “no” for an answer.
It was a proud day for all of us when President Obama signed the bill protecting LGBTQ Americans from bias-motivated crimes last October, inclusive of transgender people and disabled persons, as well.
But there is a downside to the way Matthew Shepard’s story is remembered in this country as well, one neither he nor his family are guilty of — and one we must all act to redress.
The story of Matthew Shepard has tended to overshadow the remembrance of any other LGBTQ hate crimes victim, especially if that person was non-white, older and therefore less attractive, disabled somehow, or feminine in gender presentation.
This has been true of the many gender variant youth of color who have died in staggering numbers as the 21st century has dawned.
In the case of 15-year-old Sakia LaTona Gunn, an African American lesbian murdered at a bus stop in Newark, New Jersey, relatively few media stories on her outrageous murder broke into the national press compared to the thousands that flooded the channels when Matt died.
Much ink has been spilled over why this was so, but in order to honor Matthew, we must demand that ALL LGBTQ stories are told with the passion and respect his has been.
Finally, following Judy Shepard’s example, we must use this anniversary to cry out for Safe Schools for all children.
As she wrote on the Matthew Shepard Foundation blog in early October:
“Our young people deserve better than to go to schools where they are treated this way. We have to make schools a safe place for our youth to prepare for their futures, not be confronted with threats, intimidation or routine disrespect.
Quite simply, we are calling one more time for all Americans to stand up and speak out against taunting, invasion of privacy, violence and discrimination against these youth by their peers, and asking everyone in a position of authority in their schools and communities to step forward and provide safe spaces and support services for LGBT youth or those who are simply targeted for discrimination because others assume they are gay.
There can never be enough love and acceptance for these young people as they seek to live openly as their true selves and find their role in society.”
In October 2008, I spoke at “Hope Not Hate,” an anniversary service for the city of Austin, Texas, commemorating the deaths of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., both unwitting martyrs to the cause of true equality in American life.
I said at that time, in part, “We who believe in justice cannot rest! We who believe in justice cannot rest until it comes! When a mother like Judy Shepard challenges us to send a different message to America than the one delivered by the men who killed her son, we must embrace that memory with all its pain, and break out of defeat into action.”
I believe more fervently in the work of erasing hatred today than ever.
Rest in Peace, Matthew, Sakia, and all our sisters and brothers.