Two decades after the tragic 1998 death of Matthew Shepard — who was brutally beaten for being gay in one of the most heinous hate crimes in American history — some progress has occurred toward LGBTQ equality, but obstacles still remain, advocates say.
The 21-year-old college student was abducted on Oct. 7, 1998 and driven to a remote area east of Laramie, Wyo., where he was tied to a fence, beaten with the butt of a pistol and left to die. Almost 18 hours later, he was found by a bicyclist who at first mistook him for a scarecrow.
Shepard died five days later at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colo. — setting off a wave of protests and activism that led to the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded federal hate crime laws to include attacks motivated by a victim’s gender or sexual orientation.
His attackers, who pretended to be gay in order to lure Shepard, will spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
Since Shepard’s death, his friends and family have honored his legacy by fighting to enact anti-hate crime legislation and protect minority populations through the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, said the occasion of the anniversary allowed him to reflect on social progress that’s occurred since his friend’s death — and change that still needs to happen.
“It’s meaningful to process how much time has gone by,” he said. “Obviously, now, we are in a very different position with same-sex marriage being legal nationwide.”
While significant strides have been made for the LGBT population over the past two decades, a tremendous amount of work remains to be done, Marsden said.
Employers in many states are legally protected to fire employees based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Cyberbullying also requires fresh thinking about how to protect minority populations, he said.
“It’s a new problem that developed that didn’t used to exist and which is profoundly damaging to LGBT youth and youth from all walks of life that have minority identities,” Marsden said.
Hate crimes — which rose 12% in America’s 10 largest cities in 2017 — remain a cause for concern. According to a report by the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, anti-gay or anti-LGBT attacks accounted for the most frequent types of hate crimes last year in Los Angeles, Dallas, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Detroit. In New York City, only anti-Jewish hate crimes were more common in 2017.
While hate crimes involving sexual orientation and gender identity remain common, 15 states have hate- or bias-crime laws that don’t feature LGBTQ inclusion, according to research by the Human Rights Campaign.
A handful of states still don’t have hate crime laws.
Currently, 18 states and Washington, D.C. have hate crime laws covering sexual orientation and gender identity.
Shepard’s parents have worked tirelessly to ensure that their beloved son did not die in vain.
Still, they are disheartened by the violence-inciting rhetoric that still exists today — rhetoric that advocates say has worsened since Donald Trump entered the political arena.
“We in no way anticipated that we would make this giant U-turn,” his mother Judy Shepard told NBC’s “Today.” “I just feel like we are having to start all over.”
Carl Siciliano, founder of the Ali Forney Center, an organization that serves homeless LGBT youth, remembers protesting Shepard’s death in New York City.
“It was out of control — cops wouldn’t let us go in the direction we wanted to and we were all over the place,” he said. “It was an army of people being so upset and outraged over the horror and cruelty manifested in his death, and the hatred against us that we saw.”
Siciliano, who is gay, said he feels safer today than he did in the 1990s, but that not everyone shares that sentiment.
“I think for transgender people it hasn’t progressed enough. There are still segments of society that face terrifying levels of violence,” he said. “And there are still also so many families that are not able to accept their LGBT children.”
The Ali Forney Center saw a spike in intake in 2017. About 20% more young people have sought out the organizations services over the past two years, according to Siciliano.
Both Marsden and Siciliano await a more diverse Congress that will enact legislation that protects the LGBT community.
Until then, Marsden suggests that individuals take it upon themselves to effect meaningful change — however small.
“Ultimately, we have the power to change society. If we want to erase hatred and its impact from our culture, we can do that voluntarily, individually, free of charge, immediately, by changing the way we behave, and by demanding more accountability from our institutions.
“If we try to erase a little bit of hate in our corner of the world, it is our most effective route to change. If you hear someone say something hateful, there are gentle ways to advance this message and it doesn’t have to be political, it doesn’t have to be confrontational,” he said.
Siciliano is also looking beyond the legislative track for change.