Ten years ago, more than 1,100 people gathered in Minneapolis’ Loring Park for a candlelight vigil to mark the death of Matthew Shepard, who died Oct. 12, 1998, from injuries sustained from a brutal attack by two young men whose goal was to beat and rob a gay person. His death was a wake-up call for many Americans about the reality of anti-gay violence.
Now people will gather again in Loring Park at 6:30 pm Monday evening for a candlelight vigil to observe the 10th anniversary of Shepard’s death, and to draw attention to the fact that in those 10 years, Congress has failed to pass the hate crime legislation that bears his name.
Shepard’s mother Judy selected Minneapolis as the location to host the anniversary candlelight vigil. “It just seemed like a perfect place to do this, to honor Matt,” Judy Shepard told KARE. “Matt loved it here.”
Shepard’s murderers, Russell Arthur Henderson and Aaron James McKinney, told their girlfriends that they planned on finding a gay man and robbing him. And on the night of Oct. 6, 1998, they did just that. They met Shepard in a bar and offered him a ride home. They pistol-whipped him, tortured him and tied him unconscious to a fence on a remote back road. He was found by a passing bicyclist the next morning and rushed to the hospital where physicians realized his injuries were too serious to operate. He died after six days in a coma on Oct. 12.
Henderson’s and McKinney’s defense for the murder was to allege that Shepard hit on them, and they panicked.
After Shepard’s death, his parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, created the Matthew Shepard Foundation to “replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance.” Following the candlelight vigil, the foundation will host a performance of the Laramie Project at the Minneapolis Women’s Club to help raise funds for education and awareness of hate crimes.
The Laramie Project is a play reflecting actual reactions from residents of Laramie, Wyoming, where Shepard was killed. As Judy notes, those reactions and attitudes have changed, but so much more needs to be done.
“Great advances have been made in changing people’s attitudes and eliminating ignorance about the gay community even in my wonderful state of Wyoming,” she said in a letter to supporters this weekend. “At least I thought so, until I read the readers’ comments following an article about the ten year observance of Matt’s death in the Cheyenne, Wyoming newspaper.”
Those readers’ comments still reflect a lack of understanding of LGBT people, she said.
Minnesota groups are taking the opportunity to work on the state’s issues surrounding crimes motivated by bias. OutFront Minnesota has noted some positive changes in the 10 years since Shepard’s death, particularly a welcoming police force
“Thanks to extensive community education and systems change work, our law enforcement agencies have a much deeper understanding of their vital role in responding to and investigating these incidents,” said Rebecca Waggoner Kloek, OutFront’s anti-violence program manager. “In 2007 for instance, there was a 116 percent increase over the previous year in the number of victims who reported either a neutral or positive response from police, rather than a negative response.”
Waggoner Kloek said it was a testament to Minnesotans basic sense of fairness.
“Minnesota is also a national leader in hate crimes protection legislation, so our state can truly be proud that it values protecting those who are targets due to their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity,” she said.
In addition to Minneapolis hosting the main ceremony, thousands of communities across the country are remembering Shepard this month.
And the presidential campaign of Barack Obama has offered this statement:
“Today, we pause to remember the heartbreaking and senseless murder of Matthew Shepard… In the ten years since Matthew’s passing, Congress has repeatedly and unacceptably failed to enact a federal hate crimes law that would protect all LGBT Americans. That’s not just a failure to honor Matthew’s memory; it’s a failure to deliver justice for all who have been victimized by hate crimes, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. All Americans deserve to live their lives free of fear, and as Americans, it is our moral obligation to stand up against bigotry and strive for equality for all.
“Today, Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to Matthew’s parents, Judy and Dennis, and to all whose lives have been touched by unconscionable violence.”