The late Matthew Shepard
Monday was the 17th anniversary of the death of gay American student Matthew Shepard, whose murder sparked moves to highlight and criminalise hate crimes around the world.
Matthew was just 21-years-old when he was brutally assaulted and tortured in 1998 by two men who left him tied to a fence to die in Laramie, Wyoming.
He was still alive when he was discovered by a cyclist who at first though he was a scarecrow. In a coma and covered in blood, Matthew was taken to hospital with severe head and brain injuries.
He never recovered and passed away six days later on October 12. Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were found guilty of the murder and were each sentenced to two-consecutive life sentences.
The foundation created in Matthew’s memory by his parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, has played a major role in lobbying for hate crime legislation in the US.
A hate crime law signed by President Obama in 2009 was named “The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act,” honouring the memory of the young gay man as well another victim of hate violence, an African-American man who was dragged to death in Jasper, Texas.
Matthew’s parents continue to travel the world to raise awareness about LGBT equality, and their son’s life and death has been documented in documentaries and in a play.
“After 17 years, Dennis and I are so grateful to still see such a huge outpouring of support from all of you,” wrote Judy on Facebook on Friday.
“Your continuing support allows our message to reach more people so they will no longer feel alone or afraid to speak up, and more people are given the chance to change their hearts and minds in order to accept everyone.”
“We will never forget Matt,” said Sean McEntee from the Matthew Shepard Foundation, “but with each passing year as we reflect on the life lost in ‘98, we cannot ignore the lives that are still lost to hate and discrimination.”
McEntee noted that today transgender women are the most vulnerable members of the LGBT community in the United States when it comes to violence and discrimination.
“So far in 2015, 20 transgender women have been assaulted and killed in the US, a number that has already surpassed the total number of transgender homicide victims in 2014. A disproportionate number of these victims have been women of color,” he said.
“For the Foundation’s 17th anniversary, I set out to bring this epidemic to the forefront of our efforts. The hate that claimed Matt’s life, that affects our community’s safety and security, is far from erased,” McEntee added.
In South Africa, the government has been promising to bring a hate crime bill to Parliament for more than two years but has still not announced when this will happen. Activists argue that enacting legislation recognising hate crimes as a unique form of crime would allow government and civil society to better monitor and tackle these kinds of prejudice-based incidents.