Memorializing Matthew Shepard

Memorializing Matthew Shepard
© Getty Images

On Oct. 26, just over  20 years after he was killed in a homophobic attack, Matthew Shepard will be interred at Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

Shepard’s murder was not just tragic, but horrific. After leaving a bar with two men, he was kidnapped, robbed, brutally beaten and tied to a fence, where he was left overnight to die.

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I was a not-yet-out 13-year-old in North Dakota when Shepard was killed, and it is difficult to overstate the impact that his death had on gay men of my generation. I recall the shock and sorrow, and the sense of resolve that nothing like that should happen again. I remember the strength and perseverance of his parents, Judy and Dennis, who worked to ensure that it didn’t.

But I also remember the hatefulness that his death exposed in the weeks and months that followed, both in the extremity of its violence and in the homophobic rhetoric aired by groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church, which picketed Shepard’s funeral. Even after his death galvanized a movement for stronger anti-violence protections, it was those cruel responses that left his parents fearful that any permanent gravesite would be defaced.

That Shepard is being laid to rest at Washington National Cathedral — the Episcopal cathedral that has hosted funerals for presidents and lawmakers — is fitting for the profound impact of his legacy. His death is best remembered for sparking a renewed push for hate crimes legislation, and especially the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a federal law enacted in 2009.

The act updated federal hate crimes legislation to include crimes motivated by a person’s gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. It expanded the collection of federal hate crimes data, allowed federal authorities to pursue investigations when local authorities did not, and gave funding to help state and local authorities prosecute hate crimes.

While the act made important substantive changes, the bigger legacy of Matthew Shepard’s tragic murder is that it prompted many people to confront the reality and intensity of anti-LGBT violence. And as we prepare to lay him to rest, there is still more we can do to honor that legacy today.

LGBT people continue to face violence in the United States. In 2016, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) received reports of 1,036 incidents of hate violence against LGBT people in the United States. The majority were gay, between 19 and 39 years old, and/or people of color.

Data also show that transgender people, and particularly transgender women of color, are at a disproportionate risk of violence. A 2015 survey of almost 28,000 transgender people found that, in the year prior to the survey, nearly half had been verbally assaulted and one in 10 had been physically assaulted because they were transgender.

In 2017, advocates documented at least 29 murders of transgender people in the United States — the deadliest year on record. In 2018, 22 transgender people have been killed, including the fatal stabbing of Ciara Minaj Carter Frazier in Chicago just days ago. At least some of these killings have been directly motivated by anti-transgender bias. But high rates of unemployment, poverty, housing insecurity, lack of access to health care, and discrimination also leave transgender people of color particularly vulnerable to fatal violence. Stereotypes that dehumanize transgender people in our cultural and political discourse almost certainly make this violence worse.

And while Shepard’s memory powerfully reminds us to address hate violence, LGBT people face other forms of violence as well. In 2016, the NCAVP also received 2,032 reports of intimate partner violence from its affiliate organizations. In too many parts of the United States, gender  stereotypes and a lack of LGBT-inclusive providers deter LGBT survivors from reporting intimate partner violence and seeking and obtaining services.

There is more we can do in law and policy to eliminate anti-LGBT violence. Where hate crimes laws have been adopted, LGBT people often remain excluded. Of the 46 states that have adopted hate crime laws, only 17 states and the District of Columbia cover sexual orientation and gender identity, and another 13 states cover sexual orientation alone. The remaining 16 states cover a range of other groups, but not LGBT people.

States can also ban the “gay panic” or “trans panic” defense, where perpetrators argue they were provoked to violence by discovering that the victim was LGBT and should not be held accountable for their response. The defense has reportedly has been used in more than half of U.S. states. California expressly banned the defense in 2014, and while bills have been introduced elsewhere, Illinois and Rhode Island are the only states that have followed suit.

Finally, Congress can take action to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). In 2013, lawmakers added provisions to VAWA that recognized LGBT people as an “underserved population” and prohibited grantees from discriminating against survivors based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Those steps have been crucially important in supporting LGBT-inclusive programs and making services for survivors more accessible. When VAWA was set to expire last month, Congress passed only a short-term extension through Dec. 7. Congress should swiftly and fully reauthorize VAWA, and should not remove or water down crucial protections for LGBT people in the process.

Matthew Shepard’s death galvanized a national movement against anti-LGBT violence. Now, as we lay him to rest 20 years later, there is more that all of us can do to carry that legacy forward and help put an end to violence against LGBT people in all its forms.

Ryan Thoreson is a researcher in the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter @ryanthorseon.