21 years after Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder, what has changed for LGBT rights in the US?

Twenty-one years ago, Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered for being gay. His death was crucial to securing hate crime legislation for LGBT+ people in America. But, with US President Donald Trump prioritising religious freedom over protections for LGBT+ people, how far have we really come?

On the night of October 6 1998, 21-year-old college student Matthew Shepard was drinking beer alone in in a bar in Laramie, Wyoming, when he agreed to a lift home from two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. The pair knew Shepard was gay and, according to some reports, pretended that they were also gay to lure him into their truck. That journey would prove fatal.

McKinney and Henderson drove Shepard to a remote location, where they proceeded to torture the college student, beat him with a pistol, and rob him. The attackers then tied Shepard to a fence, and left him for dead in near-freezing temperatures.

Shepard was so badly beaten that the passing cyclist who found him 18 hours later, and in a coma, initially mistook him for a scarecrow. His face was so coated in blood that that the tracks made by his tears—as he sobbed away his last, conscious moments—could clearly be made out. The 21-year-old student suffered multiple skull fractures and major brainstem damage, affecting his ability to regulate his heart rate and vital functions. His injuries were too severe for doctors to operate. Shepard never woke up. He died in hospital six days later.

Although McKinney and Henderson were convicted of first-degree murder for their crimes—and each handed consecutive life prison sentences—they could not be prosecuted for any homophobic motive behind Shepard’s murder because the 1969 United States federal hate-crime law only encompassed a person’s race, colour, religion or national origin.

Matthew Shepard’s death sparked changes to hate crime laws. (Matthew Shepard Foundation)

At the time, Shepard’s death became a cause célèbre, exposing the lack of hate crime laws for LGBT+ people in America. The killing made headlines across the world, finally highlighting to the rest of society what many LGBT+ people in the US already knew–that the discrimination they faced was physical, violent and fatal. What struck a chord with so many people was the familiarity of Shepard. He was just a normal kid.

Mobilised by their son’s death, Shepard’s parents Judy and Dennis became LGBT+ activists and, together, set up the Matthew Shepard Foundation in December 1998.

“I think that people could see themselves, their friends, neighbours, brothers or sisters in him, and that is why this story became one ‘of interest,’” Sara Grossman, communications manager at the Matthew Shepard Foundation, explains to PinkNews.

Grossman adds that, while Shepard was in hospital, people from around the world sent his family teddy bears, cheques and cards, with messages “begging them to take this moment in the spotlight and make it meaningful for the community.” She adds: “Here, we had a perfect moment to really make our plight known, and to shed light on why this story was so important.”

In the decade following Shepard’s death, Judy and Dennis lobbied for better legal protections for LGBT+ people. Finally, in October 2009, after a lengthy process in congress, the then-US president Barack Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This act—also a response to the murder of James Byrd Jr, a black man killed by two white supremacists—extended America’s hate crime laws to include gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

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