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

Matthew Shepard.

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.

Judy Shepard and Dennis Shepard became LGBT+ activists after their son’s death. (Michael Loccisano/Getty)

Meghan Maury, policy director at the Task Force, explains how Shepard and Byrd’s deaths “helped shine a light on a form of violence that had historically been swept under the rug.” They believe that reporting on hate crimes has improved in the last 20 years, thanks, “in large part,” to the work of the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

“This has made it significantly easier for our community to work on preventing hate crimes before they occur and to provide support for communities that have been the most impacted by hate violence,” they say.

But, while Maury believes that the US “made progress on reducing hate-crimes across much of the country” this only extends to the period leading up to the 2016 election of Trump as president. They say that, since the former business magnate came into power, the environment for LGBT+ people has become increasingly hostile.

LGBT+ rights after Trump

Following Trump’s election in November 2016, the US president has rolled back protections for LGBT+ people, giving precedence to religious freedom. In June 2018, the Supreme Court sided with a Colorado baker who refused to bake a gay couple a wedding cake because of his Christian faith. The Trump’s administration’s attorney general Jeff Sessions even set up a religious freedom task force over the summer. Research also indicates that reported hate crime generally is at a record high. An investigation by CBS, based on FBI and police data, showed that hate crimes increased by 12 percent in 2017, following an investigation of 38 of America’s biggest cities, compared to 2016.

In particular, the trans community has seen their rights stripped away under the Trump administration. In February 2017, the Trump government officially revoked guidance introduced under Obama, protecting transgender students in public schools. And, in May, the Trump administration reversed rules allowing transgender prisoners to use facilities, including bathrooms and cell blocks, that match their gender identity. Trump has also repeatedly attempted to ban transgender people from serving in the military (however, these proposals have been blocked by a number of judicial rulings). So far this year, there have been 22 reported killings of trans people, the vast majority of which were trans women of colour.

“LGBTQ people, especially transgender people and LGBTQ people of colour, still face violence at disproportionately high rates,” Maury explains. “We need to ensure that all people in our community are safe…Trump must stop stoking his supporters’ bigotry or media need to stop giving him a platform.”

For Grossman, the inequalities for LGBT+ people, who still face discrimination in the workplace in many US states, are clear to see. “We don’t have equal rights, simply put. Sure, we can get married. But in 29 states in America, we can still be fired just for being gay.

“How are we supposed to feel equal when you can get married on a Sunday and fired on a Monday. Or even worse? We need to connect the dots on these protections. There are so many gaps.”

Matthew Shepard’s murder led to a national outcry

The future for LGBT+ American, then, looks bleak. And, the confirmation of Republican Brett Kavanaugh—accused of sexual assault or misconduct by three women—to the lifetime role of associate justice at the Supreme threatens to tips the balance of the US’s highest court in favour of the conservatives for decades to come.

LGBT+ rights in future looks bleak

Still, Shelby Chestnut, co-director of policy and strategic projects at the Transgender Law Center, argues that America’s problem with equality has much more to do with stubborn, anti-LGBT+ attitudes than laws. Chestnut, who believes that Shepard’s death was the “largest driving force in creating federal hate crimes protections” in the US, says: “I was a 16-year-old transgender and queer young person from neighbouring Montana, when news of Matthew Shepard’s murder hit the national media. I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of fear that this could happen to me.

“I also knew, clearly, that increased criminalisation and legislation, while intended to be helpful and protect people, would do very little to change people’s hearts and minds,” they explain. “Legislation cannot make people see LGBTQ people as valuable and deserving of rights.”

It is, to put it mildly, a worrying outlook for America’s LGBT+ community, as its basic rights are chiselled away by Trump’s administration. “In 2018, 20 years after Matthew’s tragic murder,” Chestnut adds, “it’s alarming to see an administration reversing civil rights at every turn for so many communities, especially LGBTQ people, poor people, people of colour and immigrants.”