On the solemn occasion of the 25th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s tragic passing, President Joe Biden has expressed his heartfelt condolences and raised concerns about the recent surge in anti-LGBTQ threats and acts of violence plaguing the nation.
Unforgettable Tragedy, Unwavering Commitment
Matthew Shepard, a gay college freshman at the University of Wyoming, fell victim to a brutal attack on October 6, 1998. Abducted, robbed, and left beaten and unconscious, he was tied to a fence in freezing weather. Discovered 18 hours later by a passerby who initially mistook him for a scarecrow, Shepard tragically succumbed to his injuries on October 12, 1998. President Biden reflected, “Matthew’s tragic and senseless murder shook the conscience of the American people.” He praised Matthew’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, for transforming their son’s memory into a powerful movement against anti-LGBTQI+ hate and violence in America.
Legal Gaps and Progress
Notably, Matthew Shepard’s assailants, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, were sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder but were not charged with hate crimes. At the time, Wyoming law did not categorize attacks motivated by a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity as hate crimes. Wyoming remains one of only two states, along with South Carolina, lacking a law allowing additional penalties for hate-motivated crimes.
In 2009, during the Obama administration, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was enacted, extending federal hate crimes laws to cover sexual orientation, gender identity, and disabilities. Named after Shepard and a Texas Black man who was murdered by white supremacists the same year as Shepard’s killing, the law was a significant step forward.
A Continuing Struggle
President Biden, reflecting on the current climate, noted the alarming rise in threats and violence targeting the LGBTQI+ community. Recent incidents, including the stabbing death of O’Shae Sibley, a gay professional dancer in Brooklyn, New York, and the killing of Laura Ann Carleto over a Pride flag in her California store, underscore the urgent need for action.
Anti-LGBTQ demonstrations have surged in the past year, accompanied by high-profile acts of violence fueled by anti-LGBTQ sentiments. From June 2022 to May, the U.S. witnessed an average of 39 anti-LGBTQ protests per month, compared to just three a month from January 2017 through May 2022, according to the Crowd Counting Consortium.
In closing, President Biden renewed his call for Congress to pass the Equality Act, which seeks to amend the 1969 Civil Rights Act to include anti-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. While it passed in the House in 2021 with bipartisan support, it remains pending in the Senate, underscoring the ongoing struggle for LGBTQ rights in America. As Biden aptly stated, “Our work is far from finished, and no American should face hate or violence for who they are or who they love.”