For Matthew Shepard and countless others, the work to erase hate continues

Fifteen years ago, on the night of October 6, 1998, two men lured Matthew Wayne Shepard, a 21-year old college freshman at the University of Wyoming, from a bar in Laramie.

He was kidnapped, robbed, brutally beaten, tied to a fence and left die on the cold Wyoming prairie.

Matthew was discovered 18 hours later, and for the next five days, the world held vigil while Matthew lay in a coma in a hospital in Colorado.

And on this day in 1998, at 12:53 a.m., Matthew died — his family by his side.

Matthew’s death and the subsequent trial and convictions of his attackers incited demonstrations and debates over gay rights, and sparked renewed efforts to pass federal hate crimes legislation that included sexual orientation and gender identity.

For many, however, it revealed the dangers of being gay in America, and for the LGBTQ community, it reaffirmed the risk they live with every day.

In the 15 years since Matthew’s death, much has changed… and much has not.

In that time, millions of people around the world came to know about other hate crime victims through the lens of Matthew’s story.

His murder caused then President Bill Clinton to renew efforts to extend federal hate crime legislation to include LGBT individuals, women, and people with disabilities.

After nearly a decade of wrangling in the U.S. Congress, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers passed passed an LGBT-inclusive federal hate crimes bill in the fall of 2009 as a rider to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2010.

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The Matthew Shepard-James C. Byrd Hate Crimes Act was signed into law on October 28, 2009 by President Barack Obama in a White House ceremony attended by Matthew’s parents — Dennis and Judy Shepard — who had fought for years for passage of the act.

Today, in the 15 years since his passing, the Matthew Shepard Foundation — established Dec. 1, 1998, on what would have been Matt’s 22 birthday — continues to fight homophobia through education and outreach.

The continued work of the Shepard family and the staff at the Foundation isn’t about Matthew anymore, but about what happened to him and what we do in his memory, says Judy Shepard.

And so for Matthew, and countless others, the work to erase hate continues.

LGBT History Month profile: Human rights activist Mandy Carter

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