Today on National Coming Out Day, I would like to pay tribute to an important LGBTQ icon. I keep Matthew Shepard close to my heart because he was an out young man in an environment that was not gay and lesbian-friendly, and he paid for it with his life. But he led the way for all of us to continue to be our authentic selves.
Matthew was a student at the University of Wyoming in 1998. On the night of October 6th, 1998, he was beaten, tortured, and left to die by two men named Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Following the attack, the two men were quickly arrested and brought to trial. Their defense claimed that the murder had come about as the consequence of a robbery gone wrong, but McKinney’s girlfriend had told police that he had been motivated by anti-gay sentiment.
Throughout the trial, media coverage played a significant role in covering the motive behind Matthew’s murder. And while the murder was both brutal and horrifying, the national spotlight turned towards hate crime legislation and the representation and protection of gay rights on state and federal levels; a silver-lining to a terrible tragedy. Under the existing federal laws in 1998, crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation were not prosecutable as hate crimes. Following Matthew’s murder, US Congress passed the “Matthew Shepard Act” in 2009 and it was signed into law by then-President Barack Obama, making hate-crimes prosecutable across the nation.
Matthew was the catalyst to a movement in waiting. He represented countless members of the LGBTQ community whose tragedies went unheard and whose victimizations were easily swept under the rug by the federal government. This terrible act of brutality against the gay community is one to be remembered and to remind us that we must keep moving forward by ensuring that the voices of the few are not eclipsed by the power of the many.