A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Life & love denied by hate

Matthew Shepard should have been celebrating his thirty-third birthday on December 1st. His parents should have been celebrating as well; instead they are mourning eleven painful years of misery and heartbreak when the life of their child was snatched away callously by sick individuals. Matthew was a student at the university of Wyoming, who was tortured and murdered near Laramie, Wyoming in October 1998. He was attacked on the night of October 6–7, and died at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, on October 12 from severe head injuries. During the trial witnesses stated that the callous murder was motivated because he was gay - murder brought national and international attention to the issue of hate crime legislation at the state and federal levels.

Matthew Shepard was born in Casper, Wyoming, as the first of two sons born to Judy Peck and Dennis Shepard. He attended Natrona public schools including Crest Hill Elementary School and Dean Morgan Junior High School, and attended Natrona County High School for his freshman to sophomore year. He transferred to The American School in Switzerland after completing his sophomore year, and his parents lived at the Saudi Aramco Residential Camp in Dhahran after his father was employed with Saudi Aramco After graduating from high school in 1995, he attended Catawba College and later Casper College before he relocated to Denver. Shepard then became a first-year political science major at the University of Wyoming and was chosen as the student representative for the Wyoming Environmental Council. He was described by his father as "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. Matthew had a great passion for equality and always stood up for the acceptance of people's differences." In February 1995, during a high school trip to Morocco, Shepard was beaten and raped, causing him to withdraw and experience bouts of depression and panic attacks, according to his mother. One of Shepard's friends feared his depression caused him to become involved with drugs during his time in college. Shortly after midnight on October 7, 1998, Shepard met Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, Wyoming. McKinney and Henderson offered Shepard a ride in their car After admitting he was gay, Shepard was robbed, pistol whipped, tortured, tied to a fence in a remote, rural area, and left to die. McKinney and Henderson also discovered his address and intended to burglarize his home. Still tied to the fence, Shepard was discovered 18 hours later by Aaron Kreifels, who initially mistook Shepard for a scarecrow.

In trial the defendants used various rationales to defend their actions. They originally pleaded the gay panic defense, arguing that they were driven to temporary insanity by alleged sexual advances by Shepard. At another point they stated that they had wanted only to rob Shepard and never intended to kill him. The prosecutor in the case alleged that McKinney and Henderson pretended to be gay in order to gain Shepard's trust to rob him. During the trial, Chastity Pasley and Kristen Price, girlfriends of McKinney and Henderson, testified that Henderson and McKinney both plotted beforehand to rob a gay man. McKinney and Henderson then went to the Fireside Lounge and selected Shepard as their target. McKinney alleged that Shepard asked them for a ride home. After befriending him, they took him to a remote area outside of Laramie where they robbed him, assaulted him severely, and tied him to a fence with a rope from McKinney's truck while Shepard pleaded for his life. Media reports often contained the graphic account of the pistol whipping and his fractured skull. It was reported that Shepard was beaten so brutally that his face was completely covered in blood, except where it had been partially washed clean by his tears. Both girlfriends also testified that neither McKinney nor Henderson was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time.

Henderson and Mckinney were not charged with hate crime The nature of Matthew Shepard's murder led to requests for new legislation addressing hate crime, urged particularly by those who believed that Shepard was targeted on the basis of his sexual orientation. Under then United States federal law and Wyoming state law, crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation are not prosecutable as hate crimes. In the following session of the Wyoming Legislature, a bill was introduced defining certain attacks motivated by victim identity as hate crimes, however the measure failed on a 30-30 tie in the Wyoming House of Representatives. At the federal level, then-President Bill Clinton renewed attempts to extend federal hate crime legislation to include homosexual individuals, women, and people with disabilities. These efforts were rejected by the United States House of Representatives in 1999. In September 2000, both houses of Congress passed such legislation, however was stripped out in conference committee.

On March 20, 2007, the Matthew Shepard Act (H.R. 1592) was introduced as federal bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Congress, sponsored by Democrat John Conyers with 171 co-sponsors. Shepard's parents were present at the introduction ceremony. The bill passed the House of Representatives on May 3, 2007. Similar legislation passed in the Senate on September 27, 2007 (S. 1105), however then-President George W. Bush indicated he might veto the legislation if it reached his desk. The amendment was dropped by the Democratic leadership because of opposition from antiwar Democrats, conservative groups, and Bush. During the debate, Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina called the "hate crime" labeling of Matthew Shepard's murder a "hoax". Matthew Shepard's mother was said to be in the House gallery when the congresswoman made this comment. Foxx later called her comments "a poor choice of words". The House passed the act, designated H.R. 1913, by a vote of 249 to 175. The bill was introduced in the Senate on April 28 by Ted Kennedy, Patrick Leahy, and a bipartisan coalition; it had 43 cosponsors as of June 17, 2009. The Matthew Shepard Act was adopted as an amendment to S.1390 by a vote of 63-28 on July 15, 2009. On October 22, 2009, the act was passed by the Senate by a vote of 68-29. President Obama signed the measure into law on October 28, 2009.

Inspiring a slew of songs, films and protests, the story of Matthew Shepard finally woke people up to the bleak reality of homophobic hate crime. Since 1998, the Matthew Shepard Foundation has been working for Congressional passage of the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act (LLEEA), more commonly known as the Hate Crimes Bill. From speaking to the Senate Judiciary Committee to regularly lobbying Congress, Judy Shepard has been advocating and pushing for this important protection for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. In addition, the Foundation continues to support and aid in the passage of statewide Hate Crimes legislation. The vision of the foundation is to support diversity programs in education and to help youth organizations establish environments where young people can feel safe and be themselves. But that is not enough - until all decent human beings, including LGBT people, receive equal rights, and are treated with the tolerance and respect they deserve, Matthew Shepard died in vain. And LGBT people fighting for their rights are doing so in vain.

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