Fourteen years ago, on October 12, 1998, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard died after a vicious anti-LGBT hate crime in Laramie, Wyoming. His murder galvanized the LGBT community and its allies to push for stronger legal protections against similar acts of terrorism.
In the years since Shepard’s death:
- The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act became law. The bill, enacted in 2009 after years of effort, was named for Shepard and for James Byrd, Jr., a 49-year-old African American dragged to his death the same year — chained to a pickup truck because of his race. The law created a federal criminal law prohibiting many attacks committed because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person. Additionally, 13 states and the District of Columbia have state hate crimes protections for LGBT citizens and an additional 18 states have protections against hate crimes based on sexual orientation. Most have been enacted since 1998. Wyoming, however, remains one of just five states with no hate crimes protections at all.
- States are combating bullying. In its 2011 National School Climate Survey, the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that “81.9% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 38.3% reported being physically harassed and 18.3% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation. But since 2002, the number of states with anti-bullying laws has grown from 9 to 49.
- LGBT acceptance has grown enormously. As recently as 2001, 53 percent of Americans believed “gay and lesbian relations” were morally wrong, according to Gallup. Now, that number has declined to just 42 percent. The percentage of people supporting marriage equality for same-sex couples has grown from 35 percent in 1999 to 50 percent in May 2012.
- Shepard’s story continues to be told worldwide. The play The Laramie Project, which tells of his story and its aftermath, has been performed over 2,000 times around the world. A 2002 film version aired on HBO.