Growing up in rural Montana and Wyoming here in the US, I was all too familiar with the dominant culture of homophobia—a culture that is not unique to Montana or Wyoming, but one that in fact still pervades daily life and experience in most places around the world. Still, as a teen, I could not fathom what had happened to Matthew Shepard when I heard the news.
Like me, Matt had roots in Casper, Wyoming. He was born and raised there and later began his college education a few hours away in Laramie, where he studied political science, foreign relations, and languages at the University of Wyoming. He was easy to talk to, had many friends, and was a true believer and actor for equality and the acceptance of all people. But Matt's dreams were abrogated by hate—by an anti-gay hate crime—just after midnight on October 7, 1998, when Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson took him to a remote area outside of town, tied him to fence, severely assaulted him, and left him to die. He was found about 18 hours later but was unable to survive the ordeal and died on October 12, in Fort Collins, Colorado, at the age of 21.
One of the most tragic aspects of Matt's story is that his experience is not unique. In fact, in the United States, a hate crime is perpetrated every hour, and transgendered persons, who face some of the most brutal violence, find themselves more than 1,000 times more likely than the average person to be murdered. Around the world, too, lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgendered individuals face regular threats of being attacked, beaten, tortured, or killed because of their sexual orientation. Like Eudy Simelane. She was found in a creek in a park in Kwa Thema on the outskirts of Johannesburg, in 2008 after being gang-raped, brutally beaten, and then stabbed 25 times in the face, chest, and legs. Eudy, one of the first women to live openly as a lesbian in Kwa Thema, was the former star of South Africa's acclaimed Banyana Banyana national female football squad and an active campaigner for equality rights. Or a transgendered woman in Tatapoto, Peru who, because of her gender presentation, was subjected in January of this year to physical humiliation and insults by neighborhood watch members, who chased and caught her and her companion, stripped them, cut their hair, and then forced them to do military training exercises until they collapsed from exhaustion, being taunted all the while by a crowd of onlookers. Or the scores of gay men in Iraq that have been brutally tortured and murdered in a rash of violence since early 2009. These are hate crimes, and they have got to stop.
While the journey to dignity, tolerance, and safety for all people remains long, compassion just conquered hate in a big way. On Wednesday, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (S. 909, H.R. 1913) was signed into law, bringing us one step closer to equality. (Read about James Byrd's story.) This is the first time any federal equality measure protecting LGBT rights has become law in the US and represents the first federal law to explicitly protect transgender people. The new law gives the Justice Department new powers to investigate and prosecute violence motivated by actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. The Act will give local law enforcement the support and resources it needs to investigate and pursue hate crimes, resources they did not have in Casper in 1998 when they had to furlough law enforcement officers in order to pay for the prosecution of Matt's case because federal hate crime laws did not cover crimes motivated by sexual orientation. The Act will also ensure that anti-LGBT hate crimes are covered under federal jurisdiction so that when local governments cannot or will not act, federal authorities can ensure that these crimes are addressed.
In 1998, when Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered, only three countries in the world had implemented national constitutional protections based on sexual orientation: Fiji, South Africa, and Ecuador. Today, after more than a decade-long struggle (and in fact longer), the United States finally joins what has now become several dozen countries around the world that acknowledge the rights and protections due to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons. (Homosexuality still remains punishable by death in five countries.)
Ever since that day over 10 years ago, when I stood outside of Matt's memorial service with my dad on a typical cold, windy Casper afternoon, trying to make sense of the hate that had just shaken the community, and our nation—this is the day I have been waiting for. Today, we will celebrate. And tomorrow, we will pick up and continue on with our struggle around the world to “actively fight to replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance,” as Matt's mom put it, for there is still much to be done.
The Global Fund for Women is one of the top 10 funders of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights in the world and has awarded over $6 million in grants to more than 300 women-led groups working to advance LGBTIQ rights in 73 countries.
Annie Wilkinson is part of the Development Team at the Global Fund for Women.