This article was published on October 5th, 2022
Nearly 24 years ago to the day, Matthew Shepard was just a freshman at the University of Wyoming leaving a bar in downtown Laramie on a late night. By the morning, his body was discovered tied to a fence on the outskirts of town where he had been left to die – simply because he was gay. The aftershocks of that night and what happened afterwards continue to resonate and reverberate within the LGBTQ+ community and beyond.
October 12, 1998 is now an iconic date in queer history, but now that the date includes a new generation that may not know how impactful it was, it is important to remember what the name Matthew Shepard means and how his death led to rallies to stop hatred against LGBTQ+ people.
Parents Motivated Out of Grief and Love
Matthew’s family – Dennis and Judy Shepard, plus his brother Logan – created a foundation featuring his namesake and used his unfortunate death to raise awareness against hate crimes. As a result of their efforts, The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed was signed into law by President Barack Obama on October 28, 2009. Today, those under a certain age may not remember who Shepard was and what the state of the country was at the time of his death.
Shepard died in an era where the LGBTQ+ community had already lost many during AIDS crisis – in fact Shepard himself was positive. Same-sex marriage was banned by the federal defense of marriage act, and open LGBTQ military service was not possible, with only Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in place through the Clinton administration. In most states at the time, there were laws in place prohibiting private homosexual activity, sodomy, and oral sex between consenting adults. It was not until the 2003 Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas that these laws were ruled unconstitutional.
Twenty Years of Progress and Generation Of Advocates Are Born
Younger LGBTQ+ people enjoy far greater liberties than any other generation, with more support from several organizations and the freedom to live their lives fully. Social media has been an impactful tool in recalibrating the queer experience, and these applications are considered the great equalizer in normalizing the community to those that live outside the umbrella. Worth noting is that Matthew’s mother is quoted as saying: “One of Matt’s greatest legacies is a generation of advocates.”
Advocates in the community have been emboldened like never before, and although LGBTQ+ still face hurdles, the gains that have been made in the last two decades is proof that advocacy has been one of the strongest tools of the community.
Shepard is more than an icon; he reminds us of all that hatred must be addressed in all forms and excised from the culture if we are to ever achieve full equality.
Great gains have come at a great and grave cost. Therefore, we continue to celebrate and honor Matthew Shepard in 2022.