Ask any American over the age of 20 and they’ll probably tell you they remember it. Some may even remember where they were when they first heard about it, much like 9/11 or the assassination of President Kennedy. However, this particular assassination was not about politics or global influence. Which, in many ways, makes it even harder to comprehend.
On the night of October 6th, 1998, a young college student named Matthew Shepard was robbed, beaten, and left for dead, his body tied to a fencepost on a quiet ranch in rural Wyoming. It was soon revealed that Matthew Shepard was killed because he was gay, a victim of a hate crime. In the following days, the news media descended upon the small community of Laramie, Wyoming, and the rest of the nation watched as the horrific reality settled in everyone’s mind: that could happen to anyone. And in some ways, it did.
As LGBT activists and straight allies collided with Bible-thumping protesters and gay bashers, an entire generation of gay teenagers was left stunned. This was, after all, the generation that grew up with fear. The generation that grew up hearing about AIDS as children in the 1980’s, watching as dozens of their favorite young actors and musicians died from drug use in the 1990’s, and seeing the president who brought the nation from economic turmoil to prosperity get impeached over a blowjob. As the 1990’s came to a close, this group of young adults was finally getting their footing, going off to college or other pursuits, carving out their own identities. For many, this was a time to come out as gay and start living the lives they wanted. Then, Matthew Shepard happened, and the dark childhood friend known as “Fear” moved back into the neighborhood.
In 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, with Matthew’s mother, Judy Shepard, at his side. The legislation was an expansion on the existing hate crimes law, granting added protection from crimes against a person on the basis of his or her gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity. The law was signed almost exactly 11 years after Matthew Shepard died. 3 Presidential terms, 6 Congresses, and 11 long years.
But what happened during these 11 years? In truth, Fear had a pretty long reign, rearing its ugly head a few more times as airplanes crashed into towers, wars were declared, and economic depression sunk in. However, on the LGBT front, Fear was no longer acceptable, and was in fact, turned into Change. As Judy Shepard and her team of activists started a foundation in her son’s name, other prominent figures began to take action. Comedienne Ellen Degeneres, who once famously came out on a primetime sitcom, got her own syndicated TV talk show. Harvey Milk was recognized as the most significant openly gay elected official in the country. Not long after, gay news anchors, athletes, lawyers, and politicians began to emerge.
In the years following the signing of the Matthew Shepard Act, LGBT issues actually started to become commonplace. So much so in fact, that a new LGBT topic came to the forefront: the right of gay marriage. As the nation looked back at the flaws in the 1996 Federal Defense of Marriage Act, the individual state governments began a cultural and constitutional shift. A right the federal government had once deemed illegal was now recognized and legalized in New Hampshire, then Vermont, then New York, then Maine, Washington, California, Delaware, Hawaii, New Mexico, and onward until 37 states recognized gay marriage as a legal, fair, and equal right. Only 13 states banning the act, 7 of those under appeal in the court system.
And not surprisingly, the generation of young homosexuals who are of typical marrying age today is the very same generation that watched as their teenage dream of an equal and fear-free society was seemingly destroyed by the crimes committed against a young gay man from Wyoming. Matthew Shepard may have died in a field, but his legacy lives on in the fact that his short life and tragic death exposed Fear, and gave LGBT citizens and allies the motivation they needed to start the process of change.