On Monday, May 17, Judy Shepard, whose gay son, Matthew, was violently murdered near Laramie, Wyoming in 1998, will appear at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th Street, Santa Monica. The free event, which is open to the public, is under the auspices of Facing History and Ourselves and The Allstate Foundation for a Community Conversation.
As you may remember, 21 year-old Matthew was pistol-whipped, bludgeoned and lashed to a fence post, just off an isolated rural road, during one of Wyoming’s cold, lonely October nights. He was left for dead by his killers. Eighteen hours later Matthew was discovered still alive, but in a coma. “I mistook him for a scarecrow,” said 18 year-old Aaron Kreifels. Five days later he died.
In 1998 America, Matthew was just one of 33 anti-gay murders.
In 1999, when Matthew’s killers went on trial, there was no United States or Wyoming law which categorized this type of murder as a hate crime. His killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, were eventually found guilty of felony murder with each receiving two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. The details of the crime shocked the nation and prompted President Bill Clinton to ask Congress to prepare legislation which would extend federal hate crimes, first enacted in 1969, to include women, gays and people with disabilities. His efforts and those of his allies in Congress failed. Then, late in 2000, hate crime legislation gained new life and passed both houses of Congress. However, the success was short-lived when it was sent to conference committee where it died.
George W. Bush was elected President in 2000 and for seven years hate crimes legislation languished. After the 2006 mid-term elections, when the Democrats gained control of Congress, House Democrat John Conyers, along with 171 co-sponsors, introduced The Matthew Shepard Act . The bill passed the House and later the Senate. However, President Bush indicated that he would not sign the bill, the Democratic leadership collapsed and the bill died. Then, a few months later, in December, 2007, supporters of bipartisan hate crimes legislation were able to attach the Act to a Department of Defense Authorization bill. It still didn’t pass. In early 2008, an undaunted Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, tried again. However, even that effort met with no success.
In November, 2008, Barack Obama was elected President
The young, new President stated that he was committed to passing the Matthew Shepard Act. This prompted both the House and Senate to renew debate on the legislation. Finally, in 2009, the House passed hate crime legislation by a vote of 249 to 175 with the Senate acquiescing by a vote of 68-29. President Obama signed the measure into law on October 28, 2009. Within his first year in office, President Obama had an important victory for human and civil rights. The decade-long, torturous path to approve hate crimes legislation came to an end. (The Matthew Shepard Act added “perceived gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability to the federal definition of a hate crime.” It also dropped the prerequisite that the victim was engaging in a federally-protected activity.)
During those ten years, Judy and her husband, Dennis, established and developed The Matthew Shepard Foundation. They wanted Matthew to continue to live by instituting “…varied educational, outreach and advocacy programs and by continuing to tell Matthew’s story.” In addition, Judy wrote “The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed” which became a New York Times best-selling book.
During the two-hour May 17 program, which starts at 7pm, she will be in conversation with author Eric Lax who wrote “On Being Funny: Woody Allen and Comedy” and “Life and Death on 10 West.” Their conversation will center on:
- How do homophobia, bullying and exclusion transpire in your schools and community? Where does this come from?
- How can our community, schools, parents and students protect those who are singled out by others?
- How do we create a safe environment to discuss and address these issues within our community?
Reservations are required as seating is limited. To RSVP or for more information, contact Allison Rudd by e-mail at [email protected] or visit http://www.facinghistory.org/communityconversations. As part of the national series of Community Conversations this event is free and open to the public. The event is presented in partnership with Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, Santa Monica College and Santa Monica Bay Area Human Relations Council.
Founded in 1976, Facing History and Ourselves is an international educational and professional development nonprofit organization “…whose mission is to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice and anti-Semitism in order to promote the development of a more humane and informed citizenry.”