Next Wednesday will mark the 25th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death after a violent anti-gay attack in Laramie, Wyoming. In the intervening years, much progress has been made in Hate Crime legislation, much of it due to the tireless efforts of the Shepard family, including the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
Just months before Shepard was murdered, Byrd, a Black man, was beaten by a group of white supremacists, tied to the back of a pickup truck and dragged three miles before dying. The Shepard and Byrd families worked tirelessly to pass the historic act.
As monumental as this legislation is, it is also vital that we understand that how this it came about. It’s important to remember Matthew, the man, and the horrible attack that left him strapped to a fencepost in rural Wyoming by two local men on a cold October night.
Because there but for the grace go many in our community whose stories still go untold.
Matthew was born in 1976 in Casper, Wyoming. As a child, he was described as friendly with all his classmates, but was targeted and teased due to his small stature and lack of athleticism.
His father described him “an optimistic and accepting young man who had a special gift of relating to almost everyone. He was the type of person who was very approachable and always looked to new challenges. Shepard had a great passion for equality and always stood up for the acceptance of people’s differences.”
Michele Josue, who had been Shepard’s friend and later created a documentary about him, Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine, described him as “a tenderhearted and kind person.”
Much of that changed in 1995, when Shepard was beaten and raped during a high school trip to Morocco. He began to experience depression and panic attacks, according to his mother.
One of Shepard’s friends feared that his depression had driven him to become involved with drugs during his time at college. Multiple times, Shepard was hospitalized due to his clinical depression and suicidal ideation.
On the night of October 6, 1997, Shepard, who was openly gay, patronized a Laramie, Wyoming, gay bar, The Fireside Lounge. There he struck up a conversation with Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney.
What actually happened next in that bar remains disputed.
Attorneys for Henderson and McKinney later attempted to invoke gay panic defenses at their trial by claiming Shepard had groped McKinney during the encounter, but the judge would not allow it.
Other defense theories claimed that Shepard was merely a victim of a robbery gone wrong.
Regardless of what transpired between the three men at The Fireside Lounge, Henderson and McKinney lured Shepard to the parking lot, where he was beaten mercilessly and robbed.
The two attackers then took Shepard, 21 years old and weighing just over 100 pounds, to a remote spot outside of town. They tied his naked body to a wooden fence, and pistol-whipped and beat him so brutally that his face was completely covered in blood, except where it had been partially cleansed by his tears.
They then left him in the freezing cold. Shepard died six days afterward on October 12, 1997.
Shepard’s death sparked immediate national outrage and renewed calls for extending hate crime laws to cover violence based on a person’s sexual orientation. President Clinton implored Congress to pass the Hate Crimes Prevention Act in the wake of the incident.
National protests and calls for legislation came in the wake of his death, and in 2007, after almost ten after Shepard’s death, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was introduced as federal bipartisan legislation in the Congress. Shepard’s parents attended the introduction ceremony. After two years of contentious debate, on October 22, 2009, the Senate passed the act by a vote of 68–29. President Obama signed the measure into law on October 28, 2009.
The legislation creates a new federal criminal law which criminalizes “attempting or causing bodily injury when the crime was committed because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin of any person.”
So where are we today as a result of the law? The answer is we still have work to do. Too many in the LGBTQ community, particularly transgender women of color, are targeted with violence. In 2021, 57 transgender people have been killed – most victims of gun violence. And while the legislation does include gender identity, murder rates in this community continue to rise every year.
Many LGBTQ advocates (this writer included) agree that this legislation, while landmark, only addresses the physical safety of the community—and then only after a crime is attempted or occurs.
Further legislation is needed to protect LGBTQ people nationwide. In the states, it is imperative that local and state law enforcement expand prevention trainings and infrastructure so they can better serve diverse communities — and fully and accurately report on the extent of anti-LGBTQ violence.
State legislatures need to pass inclusive non-discrimination protections and hate crimes laws, and the U.S. Senate should pass the Equality Act, which would provide explicit protection for LGBTQ people nationwide.
Lawmakers must also act to ensure that training and data-collection around all hate crimes, including domestic violence cases involving LGBTQ people, is mandatory, not voluntary.
It is only after ALL of our community’s rights are protected that Matthew Shepard’s death will not have been in vain.
National Domestic Violence Hotline
National Center for Transgender Equality
The Matthew Shepard Foundation
The Matthew Shepard Story (movie)