Fourteen years ago on this date, just before 1 a.m., a 21-year-old Wyoming university student named Matthew Shepard died in a hospital bed in Fort Collins, Colorado. Five days earlier, he was abducted by two men, robbed, tortured, beaten within an inch of his life, tied to a fence, and left to die — all because he was gay. It was one of the most brutal and horrifying anti-gay hate crimes in American history, and it shocked the nation. His killers received life sentences.
Shepard’s murder sparked outrage and renewed attention on anti-LGBT hatred and bigotry. Matthew’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, co-founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation to advance “social justice, diversity awareness and education, and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.” Bills to expand the federal hate crimes law to include crimes motivated by the victim’s real or perceived gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability were introduced in every Congressional session from 1999 onward. In 2007 the provision made it through both the House and the Senate as an amendment to the Defense Reauthorization Bill, but acting under pressure from socially conservative groups like Focus on the Family and right-wing congressional Republicans, President George W. Bush threatened to veto the entire defense bill if it landed on his desk with hate crimes protections for LGBT people still included. The provision was subsequently stripped from the bill. It wasn’t until 2009 — eleven years after Shepard’s death, during the administration of Barack Obama — that the act, named the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, was signed into law.
As we work together to build a world where LGBT people can live openly, honestly, true to themselves, and without fear, we must never forget Matthew Shepard or any of the countless other members of our community whose lives were taken before that world ever came. Today and every day, we must honor and remember.