Matthew Shepard Died 23 Years Ago Today, and Republicans Continue Working to Undo His Legacy
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On Oct. 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard was attacked and left for dead in a vicious hate crime that transformed the way America thinks about the abuse endured by LGBTQ people. Following the devastating crime, Shepard’s family worked tirelessly to create a legacy of safety and acceptance, pushing for a hate crimes bill that took a decade to pass — and that could still be undone by Republican opportunists.
Born in the mid-’70s, Matthew Shepard was studying politics and language in Laramie, Wyoming, when he met the two men who would eventually murder him. Their names were Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, and they offered Matthew a ride home after becoming acquainted at a bar. But on their car ride, they stopped to beat and torture him before tying him to a fence where he was left to die. A description of the crime scene detailed a young man’s face completely covered in blood except for the streaks left by his tears.
The killers didn’t get far. That same night, they got into a fight with a group of people and police were called, quickly finding evidence of the assault. Meanwhile, Matthew was found by a cyclist passing by the fence early in the morning. He was still alive, and was brought to a trauma center in Colorado. There, he was found to have suffered extensive brain injuries, leaving his body unable to regulate his heart. He passed away a week later on Oct. 12.
In their defense, the killers’ attorney claimed they were driven into a murderous rage after learning that Shepard was gay. This is the so-called “gay panic” defense, by which the perpetrators of violence seek to defend their actions by claiming they’re unable to control themselves in the presence of queer people, usually after (they claim) they were solicited for sex or were flirted with. Such defenses are still employed by people in this country, even to this day.
The country was horrified by the violent killing, but also galvanized to action. After enduring the loss of their child, Matthew Shepard’s parents formed a foundation to advocate for an end to violence as well as services to ensure the safety of queer youth. Friends and family pushed hard for new hate crimes laws, but faced intense resistance from Republicans who sought to protect anti-gay violence. State and federal Republicans did everything in their power to block hate crime laws from taking effect.
It took a decade of hard work, but finally, in 2009, Democrats were able to push through the roadblocks and pass The Matthew Shepard Act in 2009. The bill expanded hate crime laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
But many Republicans still oppose protections for queer people, and the law could be undermined by determined anti-LGBTQ extremists. In particular, one of Donald Trump‘s pick for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, has been tied to efforts to undo progress. Kavanaugh worked in the Bush White House at a time when the administration was doing everything in its power to sabotage hate crimes laws.
The work of honoring Matthew Shepard’s legacy is still not finished.