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Exploring the Death of Matthew Shepherd

The death of Matthew Shepard casts a light on the disproportionate likelihood of hate violence against members of the gay community.

He was a man who was short of stature but large of heart. He was kind, generous to a fault, a well-educated student who longed to join the diplomatic service and work for human rights in this country and the world. And he was gay, a youth who had already faced the prejudice of a society still enmeshed in age-old hatreds and fears.

Now, Matthew Shepard is dead.

Shepard was abducted, beaten with a pistol while he pleaded for his life, robbed and strung up on a fence in rural Wyoming in near-freezing temperatures. There he languished, losing blood for almost a day until he was found by a passing bicyclist.

He clung to life without ever regaining consciousness, finally dying almost six days after he left a Laramie tavern in the company of two young toughs.

How did it come to this? Why was a boy on the brink of manhood handed a fate that some preachers, alluding to his near "crucifixion" on the Wyoming fence, have described as Christ-like? What was the road to Laramie?

A year ago, the Intelligence Report studied anti-homosexual hate crime and found that gays and lesbians are six times more likely to be the victim of violent hate crime than Jews or Hispanics, and twice as likely as blacks.

A 1989 academic study by Baltimore psychologist Kenneth Morgen suggests that even those figures may underestimate the level of anti-homosexual violence. Morgen's study found that 45 percent of lesbians and 29 percent of gay men had suffered physical attacks because of their sexual orientation.

Demonizing Homosexuals
If 45 percent of whites had been attacked because of the color of their skin, there would be a hue and cry the likes of which this country has never seen. But in the case of homosexuals, other Americans have not risen in large numbers to the defense. The voices of outrage have been few, even as vilification of gays and lesbians has grown.

In mainstream America, it is not all right, any more, to attack blacks as subhuman. It's frowned upon to describe women as somehow less than men, to call Mexicans "w-------," to speak openly of Jews as conspiratorial "Shylocks" intent on enslaving the world. But it remains okay, apparently, to openly denigrate homosexuals.

On the same day that Shepard was found, the Family Research Council was co-hosting a press conference in Washington, D.C., to announce a series of television advertisements touting the conversion of "former" homosexuals through religion. It was the latest in a six-month religious right campaign that, while claiming to love the sinner while hating the sin, has had the effect of demonizing homosexuals.

"The commercials, gooey in style, end with a slogan: 'It's not about hate ... It's about hope,'" New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote recently. "But it's really about stirring up the fear that produces hate. ... The ads themselves, despite the sugar-coating, ooze malice. ...

"[They] implicitly posit that homosexuality is itself a disease in need of a cure. Matthew Shepard has now been 'cured,' that's for sure."

In death, Matthew Shepard may help change such attitudes.

A Catalyst for Change, or Yesterday's News?
Since his Oct. 12 murder, many have called for more hate crime laws, which now exist in 41 states. President Clinton has called for passage of a stiffer federal law, and the governor of Wyoming, whose legislature has rejected several attempts to pass such a law, has asked that residents study the matter anew. Hundreds of candlelight vigils have been held, and gay rights organizations nationwide have demanded new protections.

It's not clear what effect hate crime laws really have. Advocates argue that they have deterred hate criminals from carrying out such attacks. Opponents question that assertion, saying these laws needlessly recriminalize actions that are already illegal, and in the process elevate one type of crime victim over others.

While new laws are unlikely to cure the hate crime problem, one thing seems clear: They will draw the nation's attention to it and make an important statement.

In an era when Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma feels comfortable attacking a gay nominee to an ambassadorship by likening him to former Klansman David Duke, when evangelist Pat Robertson suggests that God may bring destruction to Disney World because of its "Gay Days," hate crime laws can make a statement: American democracy cannot tolerate attacks on entire groups of people based on their innate characteristics.

Matthew Shepard is not the first victim of anti-gay hate, and he, too, may fade into the sunset of yesterday's news. In 1992, there was a wave of national repulsion when Allen Schindler, a Navy enlisted man, was stomped to death in a men's room.

There have been other, similar horrors. But the case of Shepard may yet prove to be different. If drawing sustained national attention to the consequences of anti-homosexual hate proves to be his legacy, then perhaps his death will not have been in vain.