On the night of October 6-7, 1998, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, visited a local tavern, the Fireside Bar. There he engaged in conversation with two other bar patrons, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. The pair offered Matthew a ride, and he left the bar with Henderson and McKinney.
Over the course of the next several hours, Henderson and McKinney drove Matthew to a remote area outside Laramie. They robbed him, beat him, pistol-whipped him, tied him to a fence, and left him to die. Eighteen hours later, a passing cyclist thought he saw a scarecrow tied to the fence, but it was Matthew's beaten and bruised body.
As Matthew lay dying in the hospital and immediately following his death, the LGBT community gathered to light candles and mourn. Our community had been dealt a terrible blow not only with the death of a "meek" boy "with a good heart," but with the loss of our innocence. This was no longer a small group of citizens fighting for their rights for equality, fighting for their right to live and love. This was now a culture war.
Matthew Shepard's death touched off a firestorm within the LGBT community. So many young LGBT folks who had not been around for the Stonewall Riots of 1969 looked at Matthew's death as a call to redouble efforts for equality.
From a legal and political standpoint, the battle for LGBT equality is being fought on three fronts: hate crimes laws, employment non-discrimination laws and same-sex unions.
HATE CRIMES LAWS:
A federal hate-crimes law, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007 (also known as the Matthew Shepard Act), passed the United States House of Representatives on May 3, 2007 with a vote of 237-180. Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), one of two openly-gay members of the House, presided over the vote. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) introduced the bill as an amendment to the defense reauthorization bill in the Senate, and forty-three senators co-sponsored the legislation. Congressional Democratic leadership killed the bill when threatened with a veto from President Bush, and the United States remains without a federal hate crimes law.
EMPLOYMENT NON-DISCRIMINATION LAWS:
The most recent incarnation of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) was introduced in the House by Rep. Frank on April 24, 2007. At the time, the bill included language including "gender identity" within its scope, a provision designed to protect the rights of transgendered individuals. On September 27, 2007, a new version of the bill without this "gender identity" language was introduced. It ultimately passed on November 7, 2007 by a vote of 235-184. The bill has yet to be taken up in the Senate.
Transgender-inclusive non-discrimination laws are currently on the books in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York and Wisconsin's non-discrimination laws cover sexual orientation, but not gender identity.
As of today, legitimate and equal same-sex marriages are legal in exactly two states: Massachusetts and California. There is a proposal on the ballot in California this year that would roll back the state's current law and institute a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
So-called civil unions, which recognize the legal partnership between two individuals regardless of gender while stopping short of recognizing marriage, are recognized in Oregon, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
Same-sex marriages and civil unions have been outlawed by state law or constitutional amendment in the following states: Washington, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Minnesota, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maine, Alaska, Hawaii, and my home state of Michigan.
The issue is up in the air in four states: New York, Rhode Island, New Mexico and Iowa.
After the attack, Matthew was taken to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, CO. As a result of the attack he had suffered massive brain stem damage, which compounded all of his other injuries and made recovery impossible. Matt lingered on life support until 12:53AM on October 12, 1998.
His attackers attempted to use the so-called "gay panic defense," claiming they were so distraught over the possibility that Matthew might be sexually interested in them that they were driven to the brink of insanity and ended up killing him. To avoid the possibility of the death penalty, both men agreed to two consecutive life sentences and agreed never to appeal their cases.
Matt was beaten, tortured, tied to a fence and left to die because he was gay.
Meanwhile, the culture war rages on...
[UPDATED: I forgot to mention that the University of Wyoming marked the anniversary of Matthew's death a couple weeks ago with the dedication of a memorial. Sort of...]