9 years after Wyoming man dies in anti-gay assault Congress may finally pass bias crime legislation
It has been almost nine years since Matthew Shepard was murdered in a brutal anti-gay hate crime that made headlines around the world.
As his mother, Judy Shepard, braces herself to mark yet another year without her oldest son, she hopes that by the time Oct. 12 the anniversary of his death arrives, Congress will have taken a big step forward in the battle against the kind of hate that took Matthew’s life.
The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act also known as the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act would expand the 1969 federal hate crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
The U.S. House of Representa-ives in May approved the bill, which also expands federal authorities’ power to investigate certain hate crimes and provides additional funding for such investigations. It was introduced in the Senate as an amendment to the Senate Defense Reauthorization bill in July, but has languished there as lawmakers spent most of that month fighting over Iraq war strategy before recessing for the month of August.
Shepard said in a recent telephone interview she believes the legislation has the votes to pass the Senate, and she hopes that will have happened by the time she comes to Dallas on Thursday, Sept. 13, for an event sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
“I can’t imagine why anyone would vote against it,” Shepard said. “The concept of that totally escapes me. You never hear anyone complain about laws protecting people based on religion or race or ethnicity,” just about protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Shepard dismisses objections that the hate crimes law could be used to persecute people whose religious beliefs teach that homosexuality is sinful or who speak against gay rights. It’s purpose, she said, is to ensure that hate crimes against LGBT people are investigated and prosecuted, and to send a message that violence based in hate will not be tolerated.
Matthew Shepard was murdered by two men who, according to testimony at their trials, went out intending to beat and rob a gay man. Even though both of them Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney are now serving two consecutive life sentences each, “They still don’t understand what they have done,” Judy Shepard said.
“I don’t blame those two young men totally for what happened,” she said. “I blame society as a whole. Society gave those two young men the idea it was okay to do what they did to Matt because he was gay, because he was just another “‘fag.’
“Laws don’t prevent anything from happening. If they did, we wouldn’t need prisons. But what this law would do is send a message that our politicians, our society recognizes this is a problem that needs to be addressed,” Shepard continued. “This law would communicate to the rest of the country a level of respect that says we are not going to tolerate this anymore. And that is huge.”
Shepard acknowledged that even if Congress passes the hate crimes law, it would still face another, tremendous obstacle a possible veto by President Bush.
“I have felt all along that if it passes Congress, the president will probably veto it. He has said he will veto it,” she said. “He wouldn’t approve a hate crimes law in Texas when he was governor. But I am hoping that public opinion will sway his actions.
“[Polls show that] a large majority of people in this country want this law to pass,” she added. “I really think the support might be there to override a veto.”
Advocating for passage of the hate crimes law is just one part of the battle for Shepard, who has spent the nine years since her son’s murder as an advocate for gay rights.
Judy Shepard is executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an organization she and her husband, Dennis, founded with three main goals in mind: to combat anti-gay hatred, to advocate for LGBT youth and to work for LGBT rights.
“We have made some progress over the last nine years, but not enough,” Shepard said. “I learned from [President Bill] Clinton that not much gets done from the top down. I learned from President Bush that nothing gets done from the top down.
“The important thing I have learned is that we have to win the hearts and minds of everyday people as well as winning the votes of the politicians,” she continued. “I think the time has arrived when those two things are starting to meet. I have seen changes in the audiences I speak to, in the people I meet. They understand more about the gay community. But the level of ignorance is still extreme.”
And that ignorance, Shepard said, is the greatest enemy of LGBT equality.
“Most people are not really mean. They are just ignorant. We just have to educate them,” she said.
That education process is not easy, Shepard admitted. And, she said, “I think the community itself is sometimes its own worst enemy.”
“I hope I am not offending anyone, and maybe I am looking at it from the wrong perspective. But it seems that equality across the board is what everyone should be fighting for.
“We are not asking people not to be who they are. But don’t they want the same rights as non-gays?” Shepard continued. “I don’t think any culture should assimilate. Every culture is unique and I don’t want to see that uniqueness blended in and forgotten. But I just don’t see how having the same legal rights as everyone else would take away the community’s identity.”
She also urged the LGBT community not to respond to hate with hate.
“We won’t get anywhere if we are as hateful as they are. We need to maintain the high road and not stoop to that level of vengeance.”
Shepard’s conduct in her own life since her son’s murder has shown that she is more than willing to practice what she preaches.
Russell Henderson, one of the two men who killed Matthew, pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against the other, Aaron McKinney, in exchange for a guarantee that he wouldn’t get a death sentence. Henderson received two life sentences, to be served consecutively.
McKinney was convicted at trial and was facing a death sentence. But as the sentencing phase of the trial began, Judy Shepard and her husband helped broker a deal that kept McKinney off death row.
He also was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, with the added penalty of no possibility for parole.
Shepard said that for her family, the decision to forgive was easily made.
“Matt’s younger brother and my husband and I, we understood if we went down that dark path [of seeking revenge], we would become victims, too,” Shepard said.
“You don’t recover from hate and anger. You just become poisoned with it. We made a conscious choice to try and help rather than retreat,” Shepard said.
“Matt would not have wanted us to be hateful and vengeful. We choose to celebrate his life, not his death.”
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation presents “An Evening with Judy Shepard and Neil Giuliano” on Thursday, Sept. 13, at Times Ten Cellars, 6324 Prospect Ave. in Dallas.
The event begins with a VIP reception and Mercedes-Benz Event at 6 p.m. The main event, a reception with appetizers, wine, beer and vodka drinks, begins at 7 p.m.
VIP tickets are $175 and only 50 will be sold. Regular tickets are $125. Only 185 tickets total will be sold. Proceeds benefit GLAAD and the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
Tickets are available online at www.glaad.org/events or at the door.
The event is sponsored by Times Ten Cellars, Smirnoff, Park Place Motorcars, Dallas Voice, AA.com/rainbow, Merge Media, Coors Light and the Wyndham Hotel Group.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 7, 2007