Today marks 19 years since Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, died as a result of being beaten and tortured by two classmates who targeted him because of his sexual identity. His injuries were so severe that the person who found his brutalized body tied to a fence initially thought he was a scarecrow—a lifeless, human form meant to scare.
Since Shepard's horrific death and the subsequent murder trials of his attackers, the country has taken small, but important, steps to protect LGBTQ individuals through legislation—including the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009, which made assaulting an individual because of sexual orientation or gender identity a federal crime. In 2013, President Obama also signed into law a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women's Act, which included added protections for LGBT victims of violence.
Yet 2017 has been the worst year on record for hate-related homicides of LGBTQ people. In August, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) released a mid-year report that found that as of August 23, there had been 36 anti-LGBTQ homicides—the highest number NCAVP had recorded in its 20-year history of documenting this information. Three-quarters of these victims were people of color; 19 were transgender or gender-nonconforming.
"This number represents a 29% increase in single incident reports from 2016," the authors note. "So far in 2017, there has been nearly one homicide a week of an LGBTQ person in the U.S."
Cathy Renna is a longtime LGBTQ activist who spent more than a decade as GLAAD's primary spokesperson, and actually traveled to Laramie in October 1998. She tells Broadly how "extraordinary" it is to have a sense of "the change that has occurred because of the response to Matt's murder and also how far we still have to go."
On October 6, 1998—the morning Shepard was found, still alive but barely—Renna was living in Washington, DC. She'd just returned to her office after leaving a press conference announcing national advertising and advocacy against gay conversion therapy. Her phone, beeper, and email, which was still fairly new at the time, were lighting up with messages, she says. One of the people she spoke with was a friend of Shepard's and the president of the LGBT student group at the University of Wyoming: They were feeling overwhelmed as media outlets began to converge on campus. The next morning, she jumped on an airplane and headed to Wyoming.
"The media and the community paid so much attention to this murder and was so motivated to action that it completely changed the way this issue was dealt with in American culture," Renna says. "I spent a lot of time educating the media, both local and national, that were there about issues related to hate violence. The media were trying to portray this in a very sensational way … it was such a horrific case, and the reality was that this happens all the time. It had been happening for decades." She clarified that gender nonconforming individuals and queer people of color, especially, are often targets of violent crimes that go largely unreported in the media.
In the wake of Shepard's murder and the subsequent coverage and activism, "there's been an extraordinary amount of progress in terms of the education and awareness by so many," she says. "However, with increased visibility can also come a backlash by those who are harboring anti-LGBTQ feelings. In a climate like the one we're in now, not only do they feel emboldened, but they also feel they have permission to act on their hate and their homophobia and their transphobia. That is the reality of what the current administration has created."
"It gives us an opportunity not to talk about Matt but to talk about all the other cases that did not get the attention that Matthew Shepard's murder got."
There's evidence, she continues, not only in the political rhetoric used today but the actual policies and the actions that lawmakers are taking. (For example, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley recently voted against a measure that condemned the use of the death penalty to punish people in same-sex relationships. And last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a guidance that would make it legal for any business to fire someone based on their sexual orientation.)
"What happened to Matt is not unique. It happens all the time, and it mostly happens to those who are more marginalized," Renna says. "That's why I think it's important we always go back and look at what happened to Matt—because it gives us an opportunity not to talk about Matt but to talk about all the other cases that did not get the attention that Matthew Shepard's murder got."