It was the murder that shocked a nation. Eleven years ago Matthew Wayne Shepard was savagely beaten one cold October night on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming, then lashed to a fence post and left for dead. Found 18 hours later, then rushed to the hospital, he floated at the brink of death for more than three days before finally succumbing to his injuries on October 12, 1998. He was just 21.
Much controversy surrounded his death. Did his murderers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, target him because he was gay, and beat him so severely because of their aversion to his sexuality? Or was it over drugs? A robbery gone wrong? Just a few among the myriad of questions that have been asked these past eleven years and that have also made their way into politics as tasteless but often potent weapons.
Even more questions have been asked about Shepard’s own troubled life. About the assault and rape in Morocco that pushed him into depression and drug use, about his deteriorating mental health, his HIV status, and all of the things that contributed to the downward spiral which, in turn, propelled him to the events of that deadly night; to becoming the scarecrow on the hill that cyclist Aaron Kreifels eventually recognized as the pistol whipped body of a young man tied to a fence post and left alone in the dark but for one solitary deer who had bedded down close to where Matthew was tied.
In October, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard, James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act that allows for bias motivated crimes committed against a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person, as well as those committed against people with a physical or mental disability, to be tried as a hate crime.
In no small part, this has been the culmination of the work of Judy Shepard, Matthew Shepard’s mother, who, following her son’s death, has become one of the guiding lights in seeking stricter penalties for these types of awful, and often extremely violent, killings. She also started the Matthew Shepard Foundation which aims to educate people and thus prevent hate crimes before they can be committed.
This is Matthew Shepard’s legacy, and it is an important one, not only for LGBTs, but for America as a whole. It was a crystallizing moment that became much larger than the terrible fate of just one 21-year-old man from Wyoming.
The video above, which, although having been around for a while is now in the spot light as one of the only known recordings of Matthew in the public domain, is a rare glimpse of the man behind the often talked of figure. It shows the small, soft spoken, smiling Matthew Shepard before those days of violence, hate, and political controversy. I’m struck by his quiet calm. By the normality of the scene, even. I’d never personally heard Matthew speak before. It was quite a powerful moment to watch this video for the first time.
As we near the end of of 2009 we reflect on what has happened. Hate Crimes still occur in the U.S. every month, and National FBI statistics released in November seem to indicate that the number of recorded incidents rose quite sharply in 2008. This can’t be allowed to become a recurring trend.
This Christmas, help stop hate by either donating to the Matthew Shepard Foundation which works to combat hate crimes and educate people in how to embrace diversity, or shop with them and buy “Erase Hate” caps, shirts, jewelery and much more. By doing this, you can help ensure that the Matthew Shepard Foundation can continue its vital work in changing hearts and minds.
Money a bit tight this year? Don’t worry. Stay tuned to Care2 this coming week to find out how your butterfly reward points can go even further in helping the causes that you care about.