When he was discovered tied to a picket fence, he looked like a scarecrow. His face was completely red, except for two vertical lines streaming from his eyes. The lines had been where tears washed away blood from his young face. He remained in a coma and never regained consciousness, and passed away five days later from severe head trauma. His name was Mathew Shepard.
Matt was a 21 year-old University of Wyoming student. He was attacked – really tortured – over the night of October 6-7, 1998 by Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. During the trial, witnesses stated that Shepard was targeted solely because he was gay. Henderson pleaded guilty to felony murder and kidnapping, a plea that spared him the death penalty. McKinney was also convicted of felony murder and kidnapping. Yet, he was spared the death penalty at the request of Matt’s parents.
While in jail during his trail, Henderson bragged to his cellmates that he “killed a fag,” a point that wasn’t lost on Judge Barton Voigt during sentencing. Henderson’s attorney tried – quite unsuccessfully – to argue “gay panic.” This is a not-uncommon defense used by perpetrators of violence against gays, lesbians, or transgender people. The argument goes that the victim made a sexual pass and the perpetrator was so overwhelmed by revulsion and disgust that they were driven to temporary insanity and had to strike out – thus, the “panic” defense. In Henderson’s trial the judge wouldn’t allow his attorney to use this lame excuse. It’s also worth noting that Matthew stood five foot, two inches and weighed 105 pounds. Not exactly a hulk against the likes of McKinney and Henderson.
During the investigation and trial it was discovered that around midnight on Oct. 7, Shepard met McKinney and Henderson in a bar. McKinney and Henderson offered Shepard a ride home. Subsequently, Shepard was robbed, pistol-whipped, tortured, tied to a fence in a remote, rural area and left for dead because he was gay.
Some events are just bigger than themselves, and so it is with the Shepard murder. A floodlight has been brought to the prevalence of crimes against gay and lesbian people – crimes solely motivated by hatred of gay people as members of the group. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, including pre-school children, picketed Matt’s funeral with their signs, “God Hates Fags, and “Matt’s Burning in Hell.” For the first time, the U.S. began a long journey in understanding the importance of including sexual orientation – and later – gender identify in federal protection.
There’s nothing like the love of a mother. Matt’s mother quickly became an activist pushing for the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in federal hate crimes legislation. Our hats go off to Judy Shepard. She has taken her pain and launched the Mathew Shepard Foundation which supports diversity and tolerance in youth organizations.
Listen to her message regarding pending federal legislation.
As Matt’s mother so eloquently states, after ten years we need to update our federal hate crimes legislation to include crimes committed against gay, lesbian, and transgender folks.
Federal hate crimes legislation, renamed the Matthew Shepard Act finally passed both houses of Congress in 2007. Unfortunately – yet predictably – President George W. Bush vetoed the legislation the same year. Then again, this is the very president who twice vetoed SCHIP, the federal legislation that would have expanded healthcare for about 4 million poor kids.
President Obama signed SCHIP into law on Feb. 4, 2009, just 15 days into his new administration. He has indicated that he is committed to the passage of the Matthew Shepard Act.
Contact your members of Congress
On April 22, 2009, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to begin consideration of federal hate crimes legislation. The bill, H.R. 1913, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, would give federal officials authority to prosecute hate crimes targeting people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, among other categories. This is the beginning of a long process. To win passage, your support is crucial.
The Religious Right is adamant in their opposition to this legislation. They argue that the legislation is about “special rights.” Judy Shepard knows better, and so do all people of goodwill.
Let your federal legislators know that ten years is more than enough time to wait to do the right thing. Let them know that over the past ten years, tens of thousands more individuals have been victims of hate crimes. The Human Rights Campaign has put together a tool that makes it easy to send a message to lawmakers in support of the bill’s passage.
Let them know that love conquers hate.