Advocates warn that LGBTQ rights are at risk 25 years after Matthew Shepard’s death

25 years have passed since then Matthew Shepard, a gay 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, died six days after being brutally beaten and tied to a secluded fence by two young men to meet his fate. His death was remembered as an egregious hate crime that helped fuel the LGBTQ+ rights movement in the years that followed.

From the perspective of the movement’s activists – some of whom have been on the front lines since the 1960s – progress has often been painfully slow but steady.

Same-sex sex is allowed in Vermont civil associations in 2000. A Texas law criminalizing consensual gay sex was repealed in 2003. In 2011 the military abolished this “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Policies that kept gay, lesbian and bisexual military members in the closet. And in 2015 the USA The Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was legal nationwide.

But the idea at the time that the long battle for equality had been won was refuted by the events of the last two years.

Last year, five people were killed in a mass shooting in one city LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado. More than 20 Republican-controlled states have passed a range of anti-LGBTQ+ laws, including bans on sports participation and certain medical care for young transgender people, as well as restrictions on how schools can address LGBTQ+-related issues.

Matthew Shepard's friends Walter Boulden and Alex Trout become emotional as they speak during a nationwide vigil on October 14, 1998.
Matthew Shepard’s friends Walter Boulden and Alex Trout become emotional as they speak during a nationwide vigil on October 14, 1998.

The Washington Post via Getty Images

“There’s no doubt we’ve made great progress, but everything is at risk,” said Kevin Jennings, CEO of Lambda Legal, which is challenging some of the new anti-LGBTQ+ laws. “Anyone who thinks that once you gain rights you are safe doesn’t understand history. The opponents of equal rights never give up. They’re like the Terminator – they won’t stop coming until they take away your rights.”

Some of the new laws are broadly aimed at the entire LGBTQ+ community, such as the so-called Florida “Don’t say gay.” Law that prohibits and restricts the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools. But in many of the Republican Party-run states – including Florida – transgender people have been the main target of legislation.

In addition to measures related to medical treatment and sports participation, some laws restrict the use of the pronouns trans students use in the classroom.

“What we have said in Florida is that we will remain a sanctuary of sanity and a citadel of normalcy,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said when he signed such bills into law earlier this year. “We’re not doing the Pronoun Olympics in Florida.”

Shannon Minter, a transgender civil rights attorney at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, called the wave of anti-trans bills — which in some cases led to legal harassment of transgender people — one of the biggest threats to the LGBTQ+ community in his 30s Years of activism.

An artificial rose is stuck into a crack in the fence near Laramie, Wyoming, where Matthew Shepard was bound, beaten and left to die.
An artificial rose is stuck into a crack in the fence near Laramie, Wyoming, where Matthew Shepard was bound, beaten and left to die.

Jerry Cleveland via Getty Images

“Given the intensity of this backlash, we are now in danger,” he said. “If we don’t stop this with the urgency it deserves, we will end up with half the country living with significant bias and a lack of legal protection.”

Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, called the legislative attacks “the backlash against our progress.”

“We have made great strides as an LGBTQ movement compared to other social justice movements,” he said. “There is a minority who are overwhelmingly upset about this. They are motivated and well-equipped.”

Heng-Lehtinen is optimistic about the long term, but said that “trans people across the country are really struggling to feel any hope at all right now.”

The key to changing the current dynamic is for more people in Republican-run states to know and understand transgender people, said James Esseks, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBTQ and HIV Project.

Judy (left) and Dennis Shepard in 2018.
Judy (left) and Dennis Shepard in 2018.


“But the other side’s efforts are aimed at preventing that,” Esseks said. “They want transgender people to disappear – no healthcare, they can’t use public toilets, they can’t have any official ID that matches your identity, and schools cannot teach about the existence of transsexuals.”

Esseks recalled the Supreme Court’s historic ruling on same-sex marriage in 2015. At the time, he said, many activists excitedly thought, “Okay, we’re kind of done.”

“But the other side attacked transgender people and demanded religious exemptions to gain the right to discriminate against gays,” he said. “Unfortunately, both strategies were quite successful.”

President Joe Biden marked the anniversary of Shepard’s death with a call for Congress to enact the Equality Act, which would expand federal civil rights protections to LGBTQ+ Americans.

A pair of Matthew Shepard sandals will be on display at the White House in 2021.
A pair of Matthew Shepard sandals will be on display at the White House in 2021.

Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

“Today, as threats and violence against the LGBTQI+ community continue to rise, our work is far from complete,” Biden said. “No American should be subjected to hatred or violence because of who they are or who they love.”

Several activists interviewed by The Associated Press this week recalled Matthew Shepard as they discussed broader developments. His memory lives on in many forms, including:

– The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed by then-President Barack Obama in 2009. The law expanded federal hate crimes law to include crimes based on a victim’s sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

“The Laramie Project” a piece based on more than 200 interviews with residents of Laramie, Wyo, connected to Shepard and his murder. It is a popular choice for high school theater productions, but faces resistance due to policies similar to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law that have popped up in various states and communities.

— The Matthew Shepard Foundation, a nonprofit organization co-founded by Shepard’s mother, Judy. Its self-described mission: “To inspire individuals, organizations and communities to embrace the dignity and equality of all people… and to combat the hate that lives in our schools, neighborhoods and homes.”

“Matthew Shepard’s death was a life-changing moment for many people,” said Shelby Chestnut, executive director of the Transgender Law Center.

Early in his career, Chestnut worked for the New York City Anti-Violence Project, an experience that informs his concerns about recent anti-trans laws.

“If you create conditions where people don’t have access to jobs and health care, they are more likely to become victims of violence,” he said.

National LGBTQ Task Force Communications Director Cathy Renna was in the early stages of her LGBTQ+ activism when she became embroiled in media coverage of Shepard’s murder in 1998.

“It shapes the way you engage for the rest of your life,” she said. “It involved a lot of people. It was like a ray of hope – realizing that hate crimes are a thing that happens.”

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