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Wyoming still won’t have hate crime legislation 23 years after Matthew Shepard’s murder

Matthew Shepard was killed in a brutal hate crime in 1998. His parents fought for hate crimes legislation after his death.
Matthew Shepard was killed in a brutal hate crime in 1998. His parents fought for hate crimes legislation after his death.Photo: via Wikipedia

President Barack Obama signed into federal law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in October 2009, just over 11 years after gay college student Matthew Shepard was beaten and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming.

Yet, as the 23rd anniversary of his murder comes, the state of Wyoming itself — which boasts the official nickname “The Equality State” — will still not have legislation that recognizes or seeks to prevent hate crimes.

Related: Matthew Shepard’s murder shaped the narrative around hate crimes

The Wyoming legislature, currently under a Republican supermajority in both houses, has shelved (or refused to pass) any hate crimes legislation although there have been attempts since Shepard’s murder.

The latest attempt, H.B. 218, was introduced by Rep. Pat Sweeney (R) two weeks ago with bipartisan support and co-sponsorship. The bill, if passed, would define bias motivated crimes in the state law, outline elements of such crimes, and create civil and criminal penalties. It would also require anti-bias training for law enforcement and peace officers, and reporting of hate crime data by criminal justice agencies to the FBI.

Crimes committed based on a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity were included.

The bill read, “S person commits a bias‑motivated crime if the person: Intentionally selects a person or property to be affected by the commission of a crime… in whole or in part because of the actual or perceived race, color, ethnicity, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, sex, gender, gender identity or expression, or physical, intellectual or developmental disability of the person.”

“Why is Wyoming one of three states not to have passed hate crime legislation?” Sweeney asked when introducing the legislation to the committee.

While many noted that the proposed legislation has substantial differences with other state hate crime statutes, it was overwhelmingly supported by most public comments.

“We very much support this approach in Wyoming, and it still gets us to the same point — it allows for a bias-motivated crime statute in Wyoming,” Jeremy Shaver, senior associate regional director, of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said when the bill was proposed. The ADL has pushed the #50StatesAgainstHate campaign to influence states to adopt anti-hate crime laws since the Charleston church massacre in 2015.

House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly (D), who is an out lesbian and was a professor at the University of Wyoming when Shepard attended there, commented that she feels like she has a “target on my back” in the state.

Yet when the proposed legislation went before the Wyoming House Judiciary Committee on March 11, it was shelved for the remainder of the 2021 legislative session. The General Session for the Wyoming House of Representatives is scheduled to last only 34 working days, and comes to an end on April 2. As this week is the deadline for new bills as well as the second reading of any bills, it likely would have put them off track to consider the proposal.

So by a show of hands, the Judiciary Committee postponed its consideration for the remainder of the year. They “may discuss it as a topic later” in the year, the Billings-Gazette reports, possibly at a series of meetings legislators will hold in the summer. State Rep. Jared Olsen (R) claims that the postponement gives an opportunity for all “stakeholders involved” to give input.

That means “the Equality State” will continue to be one of the three states without any form of hate crimes statute on the books, along with Arkansas and South Carolina. Some critics of Indiana’s recent hate crimes legislation also include it as the fourth. (South Carolina also has a proposal under consideration, but it does not include hate crimes  against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.)

Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard, has become an advocate for LGBTQ rights across the country and marginalized people everywhere. Most recently, she helped a bill banning gay and trans “panic” defenses pass in Virginia.

She explained to CBS News that Wyoming’s reputation is still haunted by Shepard’s murder. She was once asked by someone, “Isn’t that where that gay kid was murdered?” when she was travelling outside of the state but wearing a Wyoming shirt.

“That’s how they talked about it — ‘They murder gay kids there.’ That’s the reputation it has.”

“[The legislature] could have fixed that 20 years ago, but they chose not to.”

Matthew Shepard was robbed, tortured, and murdered in October 1998 at the age of 21. During the trial of his assailants, it was widely reported that Shepard was targeted because he was gay. Shepard’s murder brought national and international attention to hate crime legislation at both the state and federal levels.

Matthew was not buried in Wyoming due to his family’s fear that any grave or memorial for him would be desecrated. It would be another 20 years before his remains were interred at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

He is interred near Helen Keller, and a plaque similar to hers was dedicated to him in the Cathedral in 2019. Judy Shepard was adamant that her son represents more than simply gay people and stands for all minorities who are regularly discriminated against.

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