Matthew Shepard’s legacy :: The fight continues

by Scott Stiffler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday October 12, 2009

In 1998, the death of 21-year-old University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard (six days after his assault) thrust the matter of violence against LGBTs into the national spotlight. The brutality of his murder (he was beaten and left to die on a fence outside of Laramie, Wyoming) galvanized Americans from all walks of life to demand for extension of hate crimes legislation. Shepard's two killers -- Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson -- were arrested and charged, but not for a hate crime because Wyoming had no statute for such a crime. In the ensuing weeks following their son's death, Shepard's parents -- Judy and Dennis -- became outspoken advocates for the passage of hate crime legislation.

Eleven years to the day after his death (and one day after the National Equality March on Washington, DC), the long-sought goal of securing federal hate crime legislation seems an impending reality.

On Thursday, October 8, the house voted 281 to 146 on legislation which would make it a federal crime to commit assault based on sexual orientation. Bearing Matthew Shepard's name, and attached to a defense policy bill (which further increases its chances), approval by the senate could come as early as this week - at which point President Obama will sign it into law. Obama reiterated his commitment to that campaign promise at an HRC dinner on Saturday, October 10 -also pledging to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act.

Imminent passage

Passage of hate crime legislation appears imminent (thanks in no small part to the efforts of those who became human rights activists as a direct result of the Shepard case). Yet LGBT youth continue to be harassed, bullied, beaten and murdered.

Sharon Stapel, executive director of the Anti Violence Project, notes that even once federal hate crime legislation is enacted, that document will merely ensure prosecution; it won't change the hearts and minds of the homophobes who commit such crimes. Stapel says the reason such legislation has yet to pass is "for the same reason we have policies such as Don't Ask, Don't Tell and a lack of employment non-discrimination protection and relationship recognition: legalized discrimination rooted in homophobia and transphobia; discrimination that the federal government has to address now, because people are dying at a higher rate than they were when Matthew was killed."

Stapel cites a 2008 LGBT Hate Violence report which found the murder rate was "the highest it's been since we began reporting on national hate violence in the mid 90s." With increased visibility, says Stapel, comes "increased vulnerability to hate crimes. When you have a national election where gay rights are a central issue, or relationship recognition as a central issue in state races, we see a backlash of bias motivated by hatred."

Stats under representative

Stapel points out that the statistics in NAVP's survey are frustratingly under representative, since "we know hate violence is dramatically underreported," especially among the transgendered and communities of color. In order to acquire statistics which paint an accurate national picture, "We need people to report these types of incidents, however seemingly benign: from on the street harassment to the very violent incidents."

Attorney General Eric Holder spoke to Congress this past Spring when the Shepard bill was reintroduced saying that "more than 77,000 hate crime incidents were reported by the FBI between 1998 and 2007, or 'nearly one hate crime for every hour of every day over the span of a decade.' "

As for the NAVP survey (which draws from reports made to AVP and similar organizations), Stapel says "There are fewer than 40 LGBTR anti-violence programs, and they only exist in 20 states. So we're only gathering data from half of the country. We need more programs in rural areas where there may not be as large of an LGBT community to rely on for services and support."

Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation notes that while Judy and Dennis Shepard have been to Washington, DC countless times to testify and lobby for hate crime legislation, "Wyoming has no hate crime legislation whatsoever." The last time such a law had any realistic chance was "in 1999, when it made it onto the floor for vote in the state house of representatives - where it failed on a 30/30 tie. There have been subsequent efforts by people in (the state capital of) Cheyenne, but the house majority leader wouldn't schedule it for debate."

Marsden reminds people that "Politics in the interior mountain West" remain "actively hostile to progressive legislation, and this is only one topic. Everything from worker safety to education - a broad agenda of legislative goals accomplished in other states - continues to languish in the Wyoming legislature."

The Current State of Affairs

Charles Robbins is executive director and CEO of The Trevor Project. The only nationwide, 24-hour crisis and suicide prevention helpline for LGBTQ youth, the Project also conducts in-school workshops and provides educational materials and online resources and advocacy.

Robbins says that despite the passage of time and increased cultural visibility, the realities faced by LGBTQs today are "no different than when Matthew Shepard was murdered." Referring to the results cited in a recent study by Catilin Ryan (of the Family Acceptance Project), Robbins notes that gay youth face even more prejudice and violence today because they're coming out and expressing their "sexual identity at a much earlier age; around 14 - yet their peers and families are not accepting. There continues to be a strengthening of bullying and homophobia. On average. LGBTQ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers."

That said, however, Robbins acknowledges that the "Shepard effect left an indelible mark among young adults at that time. Unfortunately, so much time has passed, youth today really don't understand the kind of cathartic episode that was for the LGBT community." The passage of time, and the activism generated from the "great amount of sorrow" surrounding Shepard's death, "really propelled people to action." Robbins himself says that after the incident, he went from "working on HIV/AIDS" to advocating for LGBTQ youth because Shepard's death "affected me so much."

Need for discussion

The Trevor Project is helping to promote tolerance in the public school system (where the very notion of promoting LGBT rights can be controversial). Robbins recalls the success they've had by "providing a suicide prevention workshop to schools, to introduce the topic of prevention" in a way that speaks to anyone who is feeling different. "We talk about what to do when you're the geek, the overweight child, the person who has a different sexual orientation. That seems to be a more palatable way to introduce the topic of sexuality into the schools rather than going in saying this is a gay anti-violence workshop. Conservative districts are much more approachable about suicide prevention" than LGBTQ youth rights matters, "so we use the workshop to teach youth that their words and behaviors can have murderous effects."

In conjunction with National Coming Out Day (October 11) , the Trevor Project also launched a new program to encourage LGBT youth to come out in a manner both purposeful and exciting. The Rated Q initiative will give youth another positive arena to express their experiences with being young and dealing with their sexuality through the use of video submissions. For more on this, read this recent EDGE article.

If there's any doubt that such discussions about tolerance are needed in the school system (and in the culture at large), Marsden notes that just a few days ago, Judy Shepard talked with him about "how she feels there's been a back step since the election, as if the fact that the president is African American has incited people; that a cultural nerve has been touched. There's something going on in our culture surrounding hate that we're very aware of." Although he acknowledges that LGBT civil rights have moved forward enormously in the last 10 years, "the hardcore hatred is still out there and in some ways louder than ever. We hear this from students."

Every time the Matthew Shepard Foundation's program director speaks at a high school, students are asked "how often do they hear hateful remarks, or what we call disinclusive remarks; every day, every week, every month? At almost every presentation he gives, they're answering 'hourly.' That tells us this work is still relevant."

Also still relevant, after ten years on the cultural radar, is Tectonic Theater Company's "The Laramie Project" - a theatrical presentation of oral histories gathered from the Laramie, Wyoming townspeople (many intimately involved in the investigation, prosecution and its aftermath). Moises Kaufman, who spoke about the updated version of the play to be performed throughout the country on October 12, recently spoke with Edge about the legacy of Matthew Shepard and the effect his project has had upon the town of Laramie.

Kaufman wonders how you "measure change; in the laws passed or in the personal changes which occurred, or the number of classes you give or the number of times people stop making jokes about gay people?" Those questions, which the play delves into, have no easy answer other than to realize that homophobia, hate crimes and gay rights constitutes a "complicated picture. There is not hate crime legislation passed on the state level; but at the same time, we interviewed the police officers who investigate the case and they told us before the case, they were the ones making homophobic jokes; part of the problem." Working on the Shepard case "changed their perception. They became very strong activists for hate crime legislation and have flown to Washington, DC many times" to advocate for the passage of national laws.

Kaufman also notes that many have tried "to rewrite history; to say it wasn't a hate crime, but a robbery or drug deal gone bad. We found that had spread quite broadly, and it was hard to hear." Major examples of this revisionism include a 2004 report by Elizabeth Vargas on the ABC news magazine 20/20 that claimed Shepard's murder was a drug deal gone bad, not a homophobic response to Shepard. As recently as this past spring, such theories were used to argue against the passage of the bill that bears his name in Congress. The most egregious example came when, Marsden recalls, North Carolina Republican representative Virginia Foxx (while speaking to Congress) "inexplicably said Matthew's hate crime was a hoax."-a claim she retracted publicly whole on "Rachel Maddow's show. Judy (Shepard) did not think the apology was sincere."

Using Matthew

From Pride parades to anti-gay protests, Matthew Shepard's image has appeared on placards calling for gay rights and condemning homosexuality. Marsden says that the use of Shepard by anti-gay forces pains his parents "almost more than losing Matt; that feeling that people consider him a symbol and don't see him as a complex human being. They understand that victims can become a rallying point, and they understand the emotions that people feel about Matt's death."-but they're also careful to avoid cultivating an image of Matt as a saint or martyr.

That's why Judy Shepard has gone out of her way to let people know her son was "still wrestling with coming out, finding the right group of friends; mundane things like keeping his grades up and balancing his checkbook." The Shepards are continually truing to "paint the nuances of Matthew as a person" - which include acknowledging he "had a temper. Nobody knows you quite like your mother does, and here we have a picture of him at a moment of time and that what's the world knows about him. She's justifiably proud of him, so it pains (the Shepards) when people don't know what he was really like."

To ensure that his image is not misused, "Judy and Dennis have met with GLAAD, PLAG and HRC" to make it clear that Matthew is not "a totemic figure whose image should be thrown around" even by groups that they support. Still, they encourage those groups to invoke Matthew's name and image "because it's important to help pass hate crimes laws" and other progressive LGBT legislation."

Judy Shepard is also outspoken and adamant about "holding elected officials accountable" and encouraging all concerned with human rights to "register to vote, vote and volunteer" while also encouraging LGBTQs to "come out and be open about their relationships; put pictures of their same sex spouse or partner on their desk at work; put their wedding announcement in the paper"- because raising your voice and living openly becomes your own way of pushing social change."

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy's at The Palace. . .at Don't Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli's 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.