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Rallying Cry for Equality Among The Lgbtq: Murder Matthew Shepard

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Napoleon Bonaparte once said that “it is the cause, not the death, that makes the martyr.” Matthew Shepard was a mere nineteen years old when two men brutally beat him and tied him to a prairie fence simply because he was gay. He eventually died from his injuries, his life, and his future were stolen due to prejudice and ignorance. And thus Shepard became a martyr, a symbol for the cause, and a rallying cry for equality among the LGBTQ+ community at the end of the twentieth century.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was an abundance of issues in the LGBTQ+ community, the most prominent one being the outbreak of AIDS. (insert information about the first piece of news being released about AIDS) After this information was released, many people began calling AIDS a “gay disease” and the “gay plague” for many years after. By correlating this disease with the heavily closeted LGBTQ+ community, many Queer individuals felt that the community was gaining a bad reputation. Gay rights activists held the second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987, bringing the “first national coverage” of ACT UP, AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, which fought to help “improve the lives of AIDS victims”. The outbreak of AIDS caused people to be aware of a part of society that had previously been closeted and voiceless. People could no longer ignore homosexuality because the disease did not discriminate and was infecting everybody. But because AIDS was incurable and had been attributed to the gays who had lived underground for so long, it created a perfect storm that bred fear and panic. While the AIDS situation brought awareness to the Queer community, they were still heavily closeted. Transition into the lack of laws protecting gays, insert about gay marriage scandals.

Perhaps one of the most significant people in the LGBTQ+ community was Matthew Shepard. Shepard was born in Caspar, Wyoming on December 1, 1976, to Judy and Dennis Shepard. Throughout his lifetime, Shepard dealt with several traumatic events. During his senior year, he went on a trip with his school friends to Morocco where he was raped, beaten, and robbed. Throughout his childhood, Shepard moved homes several times, once to Saudi Arabia in his junior year of high school, then to Colorado with his friends, then back to Caspar. He also attended several different colleges before settling on the University of Wyoming where he was active in many LGBTQ+ rights groups. Shepard believed attending a school in his hometown would keep him safe, which ultimately ended up being the opposite of true. 

On October 7, 1998, Shepard was lured from The Fireside Lounge, a local bar, by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson who saw Shepard as an easy target to rob. McKinney and Henderson then drove Shepard out to a “rural area” where they beat him severely with the butt of a pistol, tied him to a “split-rail fence”, and left him to die in the cold. Shepard was not discovered until 18 hours later by a bicyclist who thought he was a scarecrow. He was rushed to the hospital in a coma with hypothermia. With a severely damaged brain stem and several wounds, Shepard was announced dead on October 12, 1998, at 12:53 AM. Almost immediately after Shepard’s death, a bloody gun and many of Shepard’s belongings were found in McKinney’s truck. This led to his and Henderson’s arrest. They were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. However, they were not punished to the extent of a hate crime due to there being no laws stating that a hate crime could be committed on the basis of sexuality.

Shepard’s death gained mass attention across the nation. Two days after his death, politicians and celebrities convened at the US Capitol to hold a vigil where Bill Clinton stated that the attackers were ‘full of hatred or full of fear or both”. Four days after his death, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Casper, Wyoming held a memorial service to which an estimated 700 people attended. At the church’s memorial, homophobic followers of the Westboro Baptist Church attended with anti-gay signs and hateful messages. However, to combat this, many of Shepard’s friends wore large white robes with “large, angelic wings” and blocked the protesters. Shepard’s body was not buried after the murder but rather cremated due to his parents’ fear that the grave would be vandalized with homophobic slurs. However, twenty years later, Shepard’s ashes were interred into the Washington National Cathedral, the same cathedral that houses Helen Keller and President Woodrow Wilson.

Shepard’s death was a momentous event in LGBTQ+ history. His murder was one of the first major hate crimes committed on the basis of sexuality, leading to a mass outcry for change in the United States. In 2009, eleven years after Shepard’s murder, the Matthew Shepard and James E. Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, HCPA, was passed. The law extended the Civil Rights Act of 1969 “to include crimes motivated by a victim’s sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability”. Due to the law being implemented after his murder, Shepard’s assaulters were not convicted of committing a hate crime. 

While Shepard’s death led to new laws and created more tolerance for the LGBTQ+ community, sexuality-based hate crimes are still occurring today. On June 12, 2016, there was a mass shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub named Pulse. The attack left 49 dead and was claimed to be “the deadliest mass shooting in the United States and the nation’s worst terror attack since 9/11”. The shooting was a massive attack on the LGBTQ+ community and showed that there is a lack of tolerance for the LGBTQ+ community in the 21st century.  

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