Content Warning: description of homophobic violence, torture and death.
Yesterday, October 12, marked the 25th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard after he sustained fatal injuries from a brutal homophobic attack in Laramie, Wyoming.
On the night of October 6, 1998, 21-year-old university student Matthew Shepard was violently beaten and tortured by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson.
Following the attack, the two men tied him to a fence outside the town, in near-freezing temperatures, leaving him for dead, before he was found 18 hours later by a passing cyclist.
Shepard died in a Colorado hospital six days later, after having been transferred for neurosurgical treatment as a result of his injuries.
McKinney faced trial following his arrest and was sentenced to two consecutive life terms for felony murder, without the possibility of parole. Henderson avoided trial by pleading guilty to the murder and kidnapping charges. He agreed to testify against McKinney in order to avoid the death penalty and was also sentenced to two consecutive life terms.
McKinney’s lawyer attempted to put forward a “gay panic defence”, suggesting that Shepard had made advances towards him, resulting in “temporary insanity”. Whilst this defence was rejected by the judge, it was acknowledged that the victim’s sexuality was a mitigating factor in the attack.
As a result of their tragic loss, Shepard’s parents and friends vigorously campaigned to have his memory serve to highlight homophobic violence, eventually leading to the introduction of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was signed into federal law by President Barack Obama in October 2009.
Marking the 25th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death, community organisations and political leaders have spoken out about the rise in LGBTQ+ violence.
Sarah Kate Ellis, President and CEO of GLAAD, the world’s largest LGBTQ+ media advocacy group, issued a statement saying: “The inhumane attack and murder of Matthew Shepard is a scar in our nation’s history and a wound the LGBTQ community is still recovering from.
“Today and always, we remain hand in hand with Judy and Dennis Shepard, and all who fight for LGBTQ safety and acceptance.”
In June this year, GLAAD and the Anti-Defamation League published a report which found that there had been more than 350 incidents of harassment, vandalism, and assault between June 2022 and April 2023. It identified that this escalation in previous years was a direct result of increased anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric.
Ellis’s statement continued, “Our worries that it could happen again remain as vivid as ever. 25 years after Matthew’s murder, we are seeing an exponential increase in hateful rhetoric and anti-LGBTQ violence. We need all voices to speak up against hate and violence, and for everyone’s right to be themselves, be safe, and be free.”
Commemorating the anniversary, President Biden described Shepard’s murder as “a brutal act of hate and violence that shocked our nation and the world”.
He said, “Our charge is to continue the fight against hate, against violence, and against bigotry in all its forms. Today, as threats and violence targeting the LGBTQ+ community continue to rise, our work is far from finished. No American should face hate or violence for who they are or who they love.”
The President shared that, during his term as vice-president to Barack Obama, he had been “honoured” to have played a part in enacting the Hate Crimes Prevention Act. He then called on Congress to push through the proposed Equality Act, in order to “ensure LGBTQ+ Americans have full civil rights protections under our laws – because every American is worthy of dignity, acceptance, and respect.”
Kevin Jennings, chief executive of Lambda Legal, an American organisation which undertakes to advocate and represent the LGBTQ+ community in implementing civil rights legislation, said: “Undoubtedly we’ve made huge progress but it’s all at risk.”
He also warned, “Anybody who thinks that once you’ve won rights they’re safe doesn’t understand history. The opponents of equality never give up. They’re like the Terminator – they’re not going to stop coming until they take away your rights.”
In a new documentary, marking the 25th anniversary, released in the US last Monday, October 9, a close friend of Matthew Shepard and former Media Manager for GLAAD, Romaine Patterson, expressed her frustration over any lack of LGBTQ+ protective state legislation in Wyoming, saying, “Don’t even get me started on how mad that makes me.”
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