Why is it that, as a culture, we are more comfortable seeing two men holding guns than holding hands? ~Ernest Gaines~
“Matt Shepard is a friend of mine” official Trailer
When Matthew Shepard died in a Colorado hospital 15 years ago this week, the shockwaves could be felt across America. Kidnapped by two men who had befriended him, tied up to a fence in a remote rural spot, pistol-whipped and tortured, Shepard died of his head injuries on 12 October, 1998.
The outrage that erupted from Shepard’s murder not only put his abductors – Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson – behind bars for life, but it also provoked a nationwide debate about hate crimes against gay people. Evidence presented at trial suggested that the attack had been motivated by violent antagonism towards Shepard, 21, as an openly gay man.
In the aftermath of the brutal killing, several states adopted new hate crimes laws that offered additional protection on grounds of sexual orientation and in some cases gender identity. In 2009, after a long campaign led by Shepard’s mother Judy, a federal version, known as the Matthew Shepard Act, was signed into law by President Obama.
But amid the far-reaching impact of Shepard’s death, one state has stood out as being singularly resistant to change – paradoxically, Shepard’s own home state of Wyoming, where he grew up and where he died. The state is one of only four that has refused to adopt hate crimes protections for the LGBT community – the others being Georgia, Indiana and South Carolina.
A Guardian interactive graphic of gay rights across the US underlines the point – it shows that Wyoming has no hate crimes laws, no same-sex marriage and no anti-discrimination legislation.
“Wyoming legislators had the perfect opportunity with Matthew’s death to deal with hate crimes, but they backed away,” Judy Shepard told the Guardian, speaking from Casper, Wyoming where she still lives. She has taken a strategic decision not to involve herself in Wyoming politics, on the assumption that it might be counter-productive.
But she still has very firm views about the state’s lack of legislative action over hate crimes. “If they had acted people would no longer think of Wyoming as a place of hate – they’d think of it as the state with Yellowstone and Jackson Hole, and not as the place where the gay kid was killed.”
The Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest group working for LGBT equality, has monitored Wyoming’s trajectory over the past 15 years. They have found the jolt that Shepard’s murder caused did not have the same practical effect as in so many other states.
“Unfortunately, Wyoming has taken the view that all crimes are crimes, and that’s good enough. The problem with that view is that it does not recognise that hate crimes have a unique impact on an entire community in a way that other sorts of crimes do not,” said Sarah Warbelow, HRC’s state legislative director.
A few months after the murder, Wyoming was prompted to introduce a hate crimes bill to the floor of its House of Representatives. The measure failed in a tied vote of 30-30.
Jason Marsden, director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which was set up by the victim’s parents, Judy and Dennis, was present at that vote in 1999 and recalls that “it was heartbreaking”. He says that the legislature has never again come close to making a serious bid to introduce protections against hate crimes for the LGBT community.
“My understanding is that the legislature are satisfied that they made the right decision on this, and they won’t be revisiting it any time soon,” he said.
But Marsden, who was a friend of Matthew Shepard’s for a year before he died, said that such a negative note should not be the end of the story. Change has come over the past 15 years even to Wyoming, a state with a population of barely half a million, a universally Republican-dominated politics and a pride in its prevailing libertarian anti-government attitudes.
Though it remains a state without pro-gay rights laws, more and more people are living as openly gay. Census figures reported by the Casper Star Tribune show that the number of same-sex couples in the state have almost doubled from 378 in 2000 to 657 in 2010.
Recent bills to outlaw LGBT discrimination in the workplace and to legalise same-sex partnerships both succeeded in getting out of committee and onto the floor of the legislature for the first time this year. The anti-discrimination bill came especially close, falling by only two votes in the state senate.
“Things are happening in Wyoming,” Marsden said. “More people are coming out and feeling comfortable to self-identify as gay. The state is evolving more quickly than any of us back in 1998 would have imagined.”
This video was produced for the American Giving Awards presented by Chase. The Matthew Shepard Foundation competed for a share of $2 million in grants. The Foundation ended up receiving $250,000 thanks to our many supporters. For more information on the Foundation visit http://www.MatthewShepard.org and http://www.MatthewsPlace.com
The Matthew Shepard Foundation presents “The Matthew Shepard Story”
This article was amended on 11 October 2013. The original said Matthew Shepard died in a Wyoming hospital.