When Police Chief Dave O’Malley found Matthew Shepard’s horrifically beaten body on a cold morning in Wyoming more than 10 years ago, the only skin on his face that wasn’t covered in blood were the places on each of his cheeks that streams of tears had washed clean.
Sadly, we all know how the story ended for Matthew. He died a few short days later in the hospital, his young life cut short simply because of who he was. In the years since, hate violence against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans has been on the rise, even as overall rates of hate crimes have gone down.
The House will vote this week on the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act, which grants federal assistance for the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes based on sexual orientation, gender expression, disability, and religion.
The vote this week is important on a number of levels. It is first and foremost a mature piece of legislation that is expected to pass with a strong bipartisan vote. The Senate version of the bill, which bears Matthew’s name, will likely follow suit and then go to President Obama, who has long pledged to sign the common-sense legislation into law. This brings us to the symbolic—and perhaps larger significance of what’s happening.
Even as candidate, President Obama distinguished himself among GLBT Americans by proactively addressing community issues—including hate crimes, workplace discrimination, and relationship protections—in speeches and town halls. He is clearly committed to leveling the playing field in this country so all Americans are free to simply be who they are. That commitment is a healing salve to so many GLBT people—particularly young people—who felt for much of the past eight years that they were under constant assault by their leaders in Washington.
There is no way to gauge or quantify in numbers the psychic damage that is caused when the nation’s leader stands in the White House, in front of a backdrop of American flags, and endorses an amendment—on two different occasions—that would change the United States Constitution to forever deny gay Americans rights that the entire rest of the country takes for granted. The message, probably heard most loudly by teenagers and their families grappling with the thorny issues of coming out, was very simple: you will be tolerated, but not fully welcomed. You are not like the rest of the country and do not deserve the same rights that everyone else has.
Researchers believe that roughly one-third of all teen suicide attempts are made by young GLBT people. The daily drip, drip, drip of bullying, fear of discrimination, even politicking in Washington adds up to a psychic wallop that is dangerous and difficult to navigate for so many young people.
To be clear, I’m not equating President Bush’s endorsements of the Federal Marriage Amendment with hate violence. In fact, the Hate Crimes Bill makes abundantly clear that speech is not covered by the legislation—only physical violence that results in serious bodily harm or death.
But there is tremendous importance in this moment, when for the first time ever, the nation’s leadership in both houses of Congress and the White House are finally ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with GLBT Americans to stare down the bullies.
There have been thousands of hate crimes in the many days and years since Matthew’s death. Sadly, there will likely still be countless more, even with this week’s progress. But the difference will finally be that instead of simply offering a passing moment of sympathy, those that feel the scourge of hate violence in their lives will finally know that the nation, our leaders, and our law enforcement, are ready to stand with them.
Mark Shields is a long-time advocate for GLBT civil rights, most recently serving as Director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Coming Out Project. Winnie Stachelberg is the Senior Vice President for External Affairs at CAP.