Remembering Matthew Shepard: 18 years on

Matthew Shepard

Yesterday marked the 18th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was murdered in his home town of Laramie, Wyoming. The gruesome nature of Shepard’s case garnered international attention and raised awareness of hate crimes against the LGBT community, spurring action to fight for legal protections for queer and gender diverse people.

Laramie residents Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney were arrested and charged for the murder soon after Shepard’s death. The men had pretended to be gay to lure Shepard into a trap, where they proceeded to rob and brutally beat Matthew – leaving him tied to a fence in a rural area. Shepard was later found by a passing cyclist, who had believed from a distance that he was a scarecrow. It was too late for Shepard, who later passed away in a Colorado hospital at just 21 years of age.

Shepard’s murder, the media frenzy and the community outrage compelled many to take action, at grass-roots and federal government levels and his legacy continues to shape LGBTIQ activism and rights to date.

One of the most notable responses to Shepard’s case is the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr Hate Crimes Prevention Act (or Shepard/Byrd Act) that passed US Congress in 2009. The bill passed after years of community activism and calls for stronger protections for minorities after the deaths of Shepard and James Byrd Jr – an African American man who was tortured and killed in 1998 by white supremacists in Texas.

The Shepard/Byrd Act was the first overhaul of the 1969 United States federal hate-crime law in decades, adapting the law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. The Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama, expanded the original law to give federal authorities to follow up on hate crimes that local authorities do not pursue and requires the FBI to track statistics on crimes motivated by gender and gender identity – as well as provided expanded funding to investigators.

Outside of government, Shepard’s parents Dennis and Judy launched the Matthew Shepard Foundation. The non-profit organisation set out to raise awareness of discrimination, hate crimes and advocate anti-violence efforts. Matthew’s mother Judy Shepard took to public speaking to tell her son’s story, recruiting a team of activists to tour the country speaking on the impacts of hate in America. The foundation also runs an online support community and liaises with schools and youth institutions to provide support.

Matthew’s story inspired myriad books, songs, films and plays as the cultural impact of his demise still echoes today. Moises Kaufman’s ‘The Laramie Project’, a stage play which depicts the town’s reaction to Shepard’s death, was formed by collating hundreds of interviews from inhabitants of Laramie in the years following. The play was adapted for screen in 2002, and spawned a sequel in 2009 that looked back at Laramie 10 years later.

The tragedy of Matthew’s death continues to catalyse action to protect LGBTIQ people and promote equality in the United States and internationally. The USA, after enacting marriage equality across the country, are currently debating a more comprehensive Equality Act that would ban discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation in the realms of public education, employment, housing, federal funding and the jury system.

Leigh Hill

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