- Posted October 11, 2012 by
Lest We Forget
Today, Thursday, October 11, is National Coming Out Day.
NCOD was founded in 1988 by Robert Eichberg, a psychologist from New Mexico and founder of the personal growth workshop, The Experience, and Jean O'Leary, an openly-gay political leader from Los Angeles and then head of the National Gay Rights Advocates.
The date of October 11th was chosen because it was the anniversary of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.
The irony of NCOD being today, is that tomorrow marks the 14th anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death.
Matthew Shepard was born in Casper, Wyoming to Judy Peck and Dennis Shepard. After graduating from high school in 1995, he attended Catawba College and Casper College before he relocated to Denver. He then became a first-year political science major at the University of Wyoming and was chosen as the student representative for the Wyoming Environmental Council.
Matthew was described by his parents as "an optimistic and accepting young man who had a special gift of relating to almost everyone. He was the type of person who was very approachable and always looked to new challenges. Matthew had a great passion for equality and always stood up for the acceptance of people's differences."
Because of his sexuality, Matthew faced physical and verbal abuse. In 1995, during a high school trip to Morocco, he was beaten and raped, causing him to withdraw and experience bouts of depression and panic attacks, according to his mother. One of his friends feared his depression caused him to become involved with drugs during his time in college.
Shortly after midnight on October 7, 1998, 21-year-old Shepard met Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson in a bar. McKinney and Henderson offered Shepard a ride in their car. Subsequently, Shepard was robbed, pistol whipped, tortured, tied to a fence in a remote, rural area, and left to die. McKinney and Henderson also found out his address and intended to rob his home.
Still tied to the fence, he was discovered 18 hours later by Aaron Kreifels, who initially mistook him for a scarecrow. At the time of discovery, Matthew was still alive, but in a coma.
He suffered fractures to the back of his head and in front of his right ear. He had severe brain stem damage, which affected his body's ability to regulate heart rate, body temperature and other vital functions. There were also about a dozen small lacerations around his head, face and neck. His injuries were deemed too severe for doctors to operate.
Matthew never regained consciousness and remained on full life support. As he lay in intensive care, candlelight vigils were held by the people of Laramie. He was pronounced dead at 12:53 A.M. on October 12, 1998, at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins.
Police arrested McKinney and Henderson shortly thereafter, finding the bloody gun as well as the victim's shoes and wallet in their truck. The two men had attempted to persuade their girlfriends to provide alibis.
Henderson and McKinney were not charged with a hate crime, as no Wyoming criminal statute provided for such a charge. The nature of Matthew Shepard's murder led to requests for new legislation addressing hate crime, urged particularly by those who believed that Matthew was targeted on the basis of his sexual orientation.
At the time, under United States federal law and Wyoming state law, crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation were not prosecutable as hate crimes.
In the following session of the Wyoming Legislature, a bill was introduced defining certain attacks motivated by victim identity as hate crimes, but the measure failed on a 30-30 tie in the Wyoming House of Representatives. At the federal level, then-President Bill Clinton renewed attempts to extend federal hate crime legislation to include gay and lesbian individuals, women, and people with disabilities.
These efforts were rejected by the United States House of Representatives in 1999. In 2000, both houses of Congress passed such legislation, but it was stripped out in conference committee.
On March 20, 2007, the Matthew Shepard Act (H.R. 1592) was introduced as federal bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Congress, sponsored by Democrat John Conyers with 171 co-sponsors. Matthew’s parents, Judy and Dennis, were present at the introduction ceremony.
The bill passed the House of Representatives on May 3, 2007. Similar legislation passed in the Senate on September 27, 2007 (S. 1105), but then-President George W. Bush indicated he might veto the legislation if it reached his desk. Ultimately, the amendment was dropped by the Democratic leadership because of opposition from anti-war Democrats, conservative groups, and Bush.
On December 10, 2007, congressional powers attached bipartisan hate crimes legislation to a Department of Defense Authorization bill, though it failed to get passed yet again. At that time, Nancy Pelosi said she "is still committed to getting the Matthew Shepard Act passed." Pelosi planned to get the bill passed early in 2008 though did not succeed in that plan. Following his election as President, Barack Obama stated that he “is committed to passing the Act.”
H.R. 1913 was introduced in the Senate on April 28, 2009 by Ted Kennedy, Patrick Leahy, and a bipartisan coalition. On April 29, 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives debated expansion of hate crimes legislation. During the debate, Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina called the "hate crime" labeling of Matthew Shepard's murder a "hoax".
Matthew Shepard's mother was said to be in the House gallery when the congresswoman made this comment.
Foxx later called her comments "a poor choice of words".
The House passed the act by a vote of 249 to 175. As of June 17, 2009, it had 43 co-sponsors.
The Matthew Shepard Act was adopted as an amendment to S.1390 by a vote of 63-28 on July 15, 2009.
I remember when this happened as vividly and distinctly as I remember the morning of 9/11. Matthew Shepard and I were only a few months apart in age, and when I first heard of his death and the story behind it, I cried.
“That could be me.” I remember saying to myself out loud.
I also remember thinking “Wow, he’s so cute!” But to me, Matthew was beautiful, in more ways than one. I even remember on more than one occasion entertaining some fanciful thoughts of wishing I’d met and known Matthew, thinking to myself that maybe we’d have made a great couple. But even if not, that he would've been somebody I would have been proud to call my friend.
What wonderful and fateful turn of events would have had to take place for that to happen, I’ll never know. And though I love my partner of 10+ years, I know that for the rest of my life I’ll always wonder….what would have been, what could have been? Then the sad reality of what actually is sets in and I cry all over again.
Even those who didn’t know him have been touched by his life. And with the passing of The Matthew Shepard Act, his parents can have at least some satisfaction and solace, which they so rightly deserve.
Thank you Judy and Dennis for all your hard work and dedication. Your efforts and struggle are appreciated more than you know!