Matthew Shepard, a g*ay 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, died six days after being savagely beaten by two young men and tied to a remote fence to meet his fate 25 years ago. His de*ath has been remembered as a heinous hate cri*me that fueled the LGBTQ rights movement in the years since.
From the standpoint of the movement’s activists, some of whom had been on the front lines since the 1960s, progress was often agonizingly slow, but steady.
In the year 2000, Vermont legalized same-se*x civil unions. In 2003, a Texas law cri*minalizing consensual ga*y se*x was overturned. The military repealed the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 2011, which had kept g*ay, lesbian, and bis*exual service members in the closet. In 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled that same-se*x marriages were legal throughout the country.
However, events over the last two years have proven that any belief that the long struggle for equality had been won was false.
Last year, five people were k*illed in a mass shooting at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado. More than 20 Republican-controlled states have passed anti-LGBTQ legislation, including bans on sports participation and certain medical care for young transgender people, as well as restrictions on how LGBTQ-related topics can be discussed in schools.
“Undoubtedly, we’ve made huge progress, but it’s all at risk,” said Kevin Jennings, CEO of Lambda Legal, which has been litigating against some of the new anti-LGBTQ laws. “Anyone who believes that once you’ve won your rights, you’re safe doesn’t understand history.” Equal rights opponents never give up. They’re like the Terminator in that they won’t stop coming until they’ve taken away your rights.”
Some of the new laws are aimed at the entire LGBTQ community, such as Florida’s “Don’t Say G*ay” law, which prohibits and restricts se*xual orientation and gender identity lessons in public schools. However, transgender people have been the primary target of legislation in many Republican-controlled states, including Florida.
In addition to measures addressing medical treatments and sports participation, some laws prohibit trans students from using pronouns in the classroom.
“What we’ve said in Florida is that we are going to remain a refuge of sanity and a citadel of normalcy,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said earlier this year as he signed such bills. “We’re not doing the pronoun Olympics in Florida.”
Shannon Minter, a transgender civil rights lawyer with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, described the recent wave of anti-trans legislation, which has resulted in legal harassment of trans people in some cases, as one of the most serious threats to the LGBTQ community in his 30 years of activism.
“We are in danger now, given the ferocity of this backlash,” he went on to say. “If we don’t stop this with sufficient urgency, we’ll end up with half the country living with very significant bias and lack of legal protection.”
Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, depicted the legislative attacks as “the backlash to our progress.”
“We made so much progress as an LGBTQ movement, at a fast pace compared to other social justice movements,” he told the crowd. “You do have a vocal minority that is outraged.” They are energized and well-resourced.”
Heng-Lehtinen is optimistic in the long run, but says that right now, “trans people across the country are really struggling with feeling any kind of hope.”
According to James Esseks, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBTQ & HIV Project, the key to changing the current dynamic is for more people in GOP-controlled states to get to know and understand trans people.
“But the efforts of the other side are designed to stop that from happening,” he said. “They want trans people to disappear — no health care, can’t use public restrooms, can’t have a government ID consistent with who you are, and the schools can’t teach about the existence of trans people.”
Esseks reflected on the Supreme Court’s landmark same-se*x marriage decision in 2015. Many activists, he said, were thinking ecstatically at the time, “OK, we’re kind of done.”
“But the other side pivoted to attacking trans people and seeking religious exemptions to get a right to discrim*inate against ga*y people,” he added. “Both of those strategies, unfortunately, have been quite successful.”
Kelley Robinson of the Human Rights Campaign, president of the largest national LGBTQ rights organization, summarized the situation on Tuesday:
“LGBTQ+ Americans are living in a state of emergency — experiencing unprecedented attacks from extremist politicians and their right-wing allies in states across the country, who are working tirelessly to erase us.”
Several activists interviewed by The Associated Press this week alluded to Matthew Shepard as they discussed broader developments. His memory lives on in a variety of ways, including:
- Hate Cr*imes Prevention Act of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr., signed by then-President Barack Obama in 2009. The act broadened federal hate cri*me legislation to include cri*mes motivated by the victim’s se*xual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
- “The Laramie Project,” a play based on over 200 interviews with Laramie, Wyoming, residents connected to Shepard and his m*urder. It is a popular choice for high school theater productions, but it has been met with opposition due to policies similar to Florida’s “Don’t Say Ga*y” law that have emerged in various states and communities.
- Judy Shepard, Shepard’s mother, co-founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation. According to its website, its goal is “To inspire individuals, organizations, and communities to embrace the dignity and equality of all people … and address hate that lives within our schools, neighborhoods, and homes.”
“Matthew Shepard’s d*eath was a life-altering moment for a lot of people,” said Shelby Chestnut, executive director of the Transgender Law Center.
Chestnut previously worked with the New York City Anti-Violence Project, which influences his concerns about the recent anti-trans legislation.
“When you create conditions where people have lack of access to jobs, to health care, they’re more likely to be victims of violence,” he went on to say.
Cathy Renna, the National LGBTQ Task Force’s communications director, was in the early stages of her LGBTQ activism when she became involved in media coverage of Shepard’s m*urder in 1998.
“It shapes the way you do your advocacy for the rest of your life,” she told me. “It involved a large number of people.” Realizing that hate cri*mes do occur was a lightbulb moment.”