Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Nation's Shame Ten Years On

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

Matthew Shepard had just barely reached adulthood when he was robbed, pistol whipped, tortured, tied to a wooden fence, and left to die in the lonely, cold Wyoming night a decade ago this week. When a bicyclist found him the next morning his first thought was that he had stumbled upon a scarecrow. Somehow young Matthew had managed to live through the night. He was removed to Ft. Collins, Colorado, where he died on October 12, 1998, without ever regaining consciousness.

Matthew Shepard was a gay man, slight-of-build and mild-of-manner, who was attending the University of Wyoming at Laramie, a backwater community steeped in cowboy tradition and homophobic pride. He undoubtedly had an awareness of the dangers of being openly gay in the middle of a shit-stomping cowboy culture, but on the night of October 6th he got careless. Matthew went to a local tavern for a drink. There he met two other young men, rough, cowboy types, who convinced him that they were also gay and lured him into a pickup truck.

The men, Russell Arthur Henderson and Aaron James McKinney, told Matthew to give them his money. He resisted, and they began to beat him as McKinney drove his pickup out of town, past the Wal-Mart, and into the crisp and clear prairie night. Evidence presented months later in court showed that they struck him in the head at least twenty times with enough force to fracture his skull in six places. As their night of savagery came to an end, they stretched Matthew's arms and tied him to a wooden fence, leaving an image eerily reminiscent of a crucifixion.

Henderson and McKinney initially tried to use a "gay panic" defense, claiming that they feared their young victim was going to make sexual advances toward them and perhaps even commit rape on their larger and tougher bodies. When the futility of that defense started to become apparent, they changed their tactic to stating that the torture and murder was the result of a robbery gone bad. The two had stolen Shepard's wallet containing a twenty dollar bill and his size seven patent leather shoes. Eventually both young men were found guilty and sentenced to two life terms each with no possibility of parole.

Sadly for Matthew's family and friends, the outrages committed against him did not end with his death. The "Reverend" Fred Phelps and his loyal band of Christian fascists from Topeka showed up at Matthew's funeral shouting homophobic epithets and holding signs that said "Got Hates Fags" and "Matthew Shepard is Burning in Hell!" The Phelps circus also came back to town for the trials of their heroes, Henderson and McKinney.

The United States government passed some limited hate crimes legislation in 1994, but the act never addressed crimes related to gender, sexual orientation, or disability discrimination. After the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard new, more comprehensive federal legislation was proposed. It didn't get to the President's desk during the Clinton administration, and Bush has stated an intent to veto the bill if he receives it. McCain has previously voted against the bill, and Obama said that he supports it. One can hope that the Matthew Shepard National Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act will be a priority during President Obama's first term.

The dark days of the Bush administration have witnessed states taking the lead in social legislation when the feds would not act. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have passed some form of hate crimes legislation. Sadly, Wyoming remains one of five that have not. The others are Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, and South Carolina.

It has been ten years since the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard. Some have chosen to learn and grow from the awful circumstances of his death, while others have determined not to let their homophobia and bigotry and rabid "Christianity" be tarnished by the light of reason. If this young man's brief life is to have a lasting meaning, our citizenry needs to recognize the awfulness of hate crimes and resolve to eradicate hate from our lives. That alone might be just recompense for the crucifixion that happened on that cold Wyoming prairie ten years ago this week.

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