Fourteen years ago today Matthew Shepard died of injuries sustained in a brutal beating on a lonely road in the Wyoming countryside. He was left tied to a fence and found almost a day later by someone who thought at first that his body was a scarecrow. He died almost a week after the beating. It was said that the beating was so bad that the only part of his body not covered in blood were parts of his face where his own tears had washed the blood away. Matthew’s murder shocked the nation and drew attention to anti-gay violence. It also helped to lead to the addition of other groups to our nation’s hate crimes laws.
The unfortunate reality is that Matthew was not the first lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) individual to die at the hands of hateful people. He was not the first one to be tortured simply because of his sexual orientation. And he was not the last. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs there were more murders of LGBT citizens in the United States in 2011 than in any other year in history. 87% of those were persons of color. 40% were transgender. Matthew’s murder drew attention to anti-LGBT violence, but it did not stop it.
I am one gay man and I have lost track of all the people I know who have been beaten or murdered for being gay. One was picked up in a gay bar, taken outside, and savagely beaten by two men, at least one of whom used brass knuckles. Another escaped a knife attack outside of a bar. Yet another was beaten outside of that same establishment. Still another friend survived a knife attack and died four months later in a separate incident after a beating with a two by four. I have so far escaped physical harm, but have had beer bottles and death threats flung at me, simply for being. Most of the queer people I know have been harassed or threatened, if not actually assaulted.
Most of the beatings and murders of LGBT citizens do not enter the public consciousness. They happen every week in this country and pass without notice. Those of us in the queer community may note them, but the general public doesn’t usually even hear about them. Occasionally, a particularly brutal crime will surface and get attention for a short while, but then the violence is put back in the closet, right where the attackers want it (and us). When there is an arrest the defense is still often what is known as the “gay panic” defense–basically, “he hit on me, so I hit him.” All too often this works. It was the defense used by the murderer of my friend and that killer was rewarded with only a few years in prison.
Matthew Shepard’s case drew greater attention than most for several reasons. Just as Amber alerts and sensational news stories about missing youths are more often about pretty young white girls, Matthew was a cute young white guy. If it could happen to him then it could happen to the son or daughter of any white middle class family. It touched a nerve in the majority culture. As long as people of color, poor folks, drug-users, sinners, or others that the majority could easily be unconcerned with were the victims the violence could be ignored. When it was a good-looking, young, middle-class college student . . . well, that was a different story and one that resonated.
Further, there was an underlying symbolism that reflected the religious viewpoints of the predominant culture in our country. Jesus was known as the shepherd and Matthew’s last name was Shepard. In addition, he was mercilessly tortured and beaten, much like the taunting and suffering Jesus endured while carrying his own cross to Golgotha. Finally, he was tied to a fence, almost as if crucified, and left to die. These details stirred emotions in the general public in a way that other crimes against LGBT victims did not.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that it didn’t resonate greatly with me, too. It did. The sheer brutality of it and the complete lack of compassion or remorse from the murderers had an effect, as did the symbolism. The fact that he was someone I could have had a crush on impacted me, too.
Fourteen years have passed and Matthew Shepard’s murder still resonates. He is the public face of many victims. He represents to us all of the victims that any one of us may know. My friend Earl’s story and murder were just as horrific as the death of Matthew. The entire country should have mourned for him as well. The entire country should mourn for any person–gay, African-American, Jewish, and on and on–who dies as the result of bigotry. We should mourn for the lack of outrage at the violence that occurs every day throughout this country. We should mourn that lives are so meaningless that as a society we don’t notice their passing.
Remembering Matthew Shepard should remind us that there is work to do yet. Today I light a candle in my heart for Matthew, but it is also for Earl and for all victims of hatred and violence. May they rest in peace and may we somehow find peace for all of us.