Shepard’s death still haunts U.S.

By Chelsea Fiddyment

For those of you who didn’t know, October is LGBT History Month. October also boasts the Human Rights Campaign’s National Coming Out Day on the 11th and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s Ally Week next week. The 12th, however, is left open – and for good reason.

October 12th, 2008 marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who was killed because of his sexual orientation. Shepard was brutally beaten and left to die tied to fence in the middle of nowhere on October 6-7, 1998. He spent roughly 18 hours like this, falling into a coma before he was discovered. He never regained consciousness.

I bring this up because 10 years later, Wyoming’s hate crime law still doesn’t include any identity-based terminology to protect its residents…and neither does Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, or South Carolina. Fourteen other states have hate crime laws in place that don’t include crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Only 11 states include both terms in their laws.

Of 7,720 reported single-bias hate crime incidents (keyword: “reported”) listed in the 2006 FBI hate crime statistics, 15.5% stemmed from a bias against sexual orientation. Of the 1,415 offenses that resulted from these incidents, approximately 98% were motivated by bias against people perceived as gays, lesbians, and bisexuals.

There’s the rub: we’re talking FBI stats, federal information. All this is brought to you by the 1990 Hate Crime Statistics Act that Congress passed, mandating that the Attorney General collect information about crimes that display proof of prejudice based on various social identities, including sexual orientation.

But when the Matthew Shepard Act came up in Congress last year proposing that the federal government do more than just compile data, President Bush threatened to veto it. The act, though it stood alone in the House, was attached to a Department of Defense Authorization bill in the Senate. The right railed against its potential impediment of free speech (answer: none), and the antiwar left opposed provisions in the defense bill to which it was connected. Support for what had been a bipartisan bill crumbled under a looming veto.

The act’s formal title, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, reflects the fact that this legislation was not only about the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity. The federal hate crimes statute that exists also excludes disability and gender. LLEHCPA proposed to add these, in addition to the other two. It also authorized the Department of Justice to help state and local governments with the investigation and prosecution of violent hate crimes, and to assume jurisdiction in dealing with such cases in special circumstances. Finally, it extended the application of the hate crime statute beyond federally protected activities (such as school and voting).

The silencing of this act reflects another statistic: 30 states still don’t have laws protecting people from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. That means in places like Missouri, it’s legal for someone to be fired from her job or evicted from her home for being a lesbian-and yes, it happens. That being said, I’m not comfortable leaving the pursuit of justice in response to hate crimes to state governments who can’t observe the right of human beings to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness free of the stifling oppression of prejudice.

No, that doesn’t mean LLEHCPA ensured the intervention of the federal government in the law proceedings of states.

It meant that if states were unwilling or unable to pursue a case, or if the government felt that insufficient measures were being taken to eradicate hate crimes, the Department of Justice could step in. Does that erase hate-motivated violence and discrimination? No, but it was, and still is, an absolutely necessary start.

The most recent suppression of this legislation happened last December, but let’s not kid ourselves. Incarnations of this act have been tossed around since 1999. Apparently people are too blinded by the controversy over same-sex marriages to even consider taking steps toward a common, consistent response against hate-motivated violence.

When Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney were brought to court for the murder of Matthew Shepard, they couldn’t be prosecuted for a hate crime because of both U.S. and Wyoming legislation. It speaks volumes about American integrity that in 10 years, nothing has changed.

Chelsea is a senior in English and music and has subsisted almost solely on Indian food this week.