The Battle Against Hate Crimes

This story was written by Laura Simmons, The BG News


Little more than 10 years after Matthew Shepard was pistol-whipped, tortured, tied to a fence post and left to die in the country outside of Laramie, Wyo., there still is no federal hate crime legislation inclusive of sexual orientation or gender identity.

"I think people expected a ton of change and progress to happen in the wake of his death, and that just didn't happen," said Cathy Renna, an expert on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights and managing partner of Renna Communications, an LGBT advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

Shepard, then 21, was studying political science at the University of Wyoming and was openly gay. Because of his sexual orientation, Shepard was specifically targeted by Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney on the night of Oct. 7, 1998. Both men are serving two consecutive life-sentences in prison for his kidnapping and murder.

"We can't get a federal law through - it's called the Matthew Shepard Act for God's sake. ... It's a no brainer, and somehow it can't get passed," Renna said. "So we're waiting for new administration, for a decade later, to try and get a piece [of] federal hate crimes legislation passed that includes sexual orientation and gender identity."

Although the U.S. House and Senate passed the Matthew Shepard Act in 2007, it never made it into law. Initially part of a larger bill authorizing increased pay for military personal, the Shepard Act was dropped from the bill's final version.

It remains stalled in Congress, though the House and Senate are set to hear it again in early 2009.

According to Julie Haught, a Bowling Green State University professor in LGBT studies, Capitol Hill isn't the only place where legal equality for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders has stalled out.

"I would argue that here, in this century, we've been seeing some backlash," she said. "And I think it's best evidenced by the way in which right wing forces have used gay marriage initiatives to rally their bases for elections. Classic choice and example, I think, is 2004."

In that year there were 13 separate state ballot initiatives to ban same-sex marriage, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, an advocacy group that tracks LGBT initiatives and legislation among other things. All of them passed. Two more states joined the list in 2005, and eight more in 2006.

Currently, only four states allow gay marriage or civil unions. California became one as recently as May, although an initiative to ban same-sex marriage, Proposition 8, will appear on that state's Nov. 4 ballot.

In terms of hate crime legislation protecting LGBT people the numbers do go up - slightly.

Eleven states and the District of Columbia have hate crimes laws protecting on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. An additional 20 states have laws protecting only sexual orientation.

But Haught and Renna argue that legislation isn't the most effective way to gauge cultural acceptance.

"There's been an effective kind of backlash, but I think the general movement of the population is towards inclusion," Haught said. "At least verbally."

"Cultural progress always precedes political progress and legislative progress. And so the fact is that culture has moved some, not a ton, but some," Renna noted.

Cynthia Mahaffey, a University English professor who's openly lesbian, said she's seen change over the last 10 years. After Shepard's murder - and because of it - Mahaffey began coming out to her students at the beginning of each semester.

"I mean here's a young man, and he was just brutally murdered. And here I was a much older prson and I'm being chicken about the whole thing when he was out," Mahaffey said of her decision. "I just thought for the sake of my students and for the sake of myself I needed to be out, too. If there were young people like [Shepard] in my classes then I felt like there needed to be someone they could talk to who was happy and out."

Initially students' reactions were mixed. "I had people drop out," she said. "That's one of the things I think about between 10 years ago and today. Even, maybe three or four years ago I still had people dropping off, but I don't anymore."

"I tell them you're going to have to work with a wide array of people - including your English teacher. Let me be your experiment in diversity, you know, for the semester," she said laughing.

With cultural attitudes shifting positively, it can be easy to write off violence against LGBT people as something that's disappearing. Unfortunately, that's not the case, Renna said. "That Lawrence King can get shot in the head in a classroom with 20 other students at the age of 14 by a 15-year-old classmate, because he gave him a Valentine's Day card," she said, her voice getting higher. "That's just, that's insanity. That happened a few months ago."

King was actually 15; his alleged shooter, Brandon McInerney, was 14. King's murder happened in Oxnard, Calif., 60 miles northeast of Los Angeles, on Valentine's Day. "This stuff happens all the time," Renna said. "It doesn't just happen in isolated places like Laramie. It happens in the Castro, it happens in New York, it happens in Texas."

Additionally, most victims of LGBT hate crimes have more in common with King than with Shepard, Renna said. "The reality is the vast majority of the victims are younger - kids, teenagers, young people - disproportionately gender non-conforming or transgender, disproportionately people of color. Matthew Shepard isn't the most representative person."

Maybe so, but without a doubt, Shepard's murder received more attention than any case of violence against an LGBT person, before or since.

Haught said the reason for that comes down to class and race. "Matthew Shepard became a very effective image to guilt people into recognizing the kind of hatred that's out there. And it's sad to me that had Matthew Shepard been a 40-year-old, 300-pound black man we would have never heard about his murder," she said. "But in terms of activism, the college student, the middle class, affluent college student - murdered - shakes something in terms of people's basic sense of who's safe in this country."

But occasionally people need to be shaken to push for change, Haught said. She noted it would take more than passing the Matthew Shepard Act to change hateful attitudes and actions.

But at the very least, that could set the stage for change to happen. "There has to be some kind of formal way in which we acknowledge that culturally, we do not tolerate, and we find particularly heinous, these types of crimes," Haught said.

On the Matthew Shepard Foundation's Web site, Judy Shepard, mother of the 21-year-old hate crime victim, wrote an entry marking the 10-year anniversary of her son's death."It is ignorance that ultimately results in hate and that may escalate into physical violence," she wrote. "Apathy is unacceptable. We are at a cross roads in the movement and we need to show our support for those who support the LGBT community. We are all hoping the next 10 years will be our time."
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