The following statement was read on Wednesday, October 16th on behalf of Judy and Dennis Shepard, at the Department of Justice commemorative event to mark the historic 10-year anniversary of the signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
“Throughout the history of this country, discrimination against someone because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or because of another characteristic, has been, unfortunately, quite prevalent. Along with that discrimination came violence to remove those considered “other”. Our son, Matt, was the result of that discrimination and violence when he was beaten brutally and left to die on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming in early October 1998. He died five days later, never having regained consciousness from the eighteen plus blows to the skull, resulting in a crushed brain stem from which he never recovered. His two assailants each received two consecutive life sentences without parole. In state court.
After the trials concluded, some members of both the Laramie City Police Department and the Albany County Sheriff’s Department were furloughed to help defray the cost of the investigation and the prosecution of the two assailants. Due to the fact that Wyoming had no hate crime law, federal money was not available to help cover those expenses. Even now, more than twenty years after Matt’s death, Wyoming is still without a hate crime law to protect its citizens.
To this day, we are unable to understand why he was murdered for being gay. Being gay is not a choice. Matt stood 5’ 2’’ in height and weighed a mere 105 pounds at his death. Matt spoke five languages and was learning a sixth when he died. He was a people person, always wanting to help others. His dream was to work for the U.S. State Department overseas to help citizens of other countries enjoy the same rights, responsibilities, privileges, and freedoms he thought – I repeat – he thought he had in this country…the country he loved so much…the country he was so proud of.
Matt’s death was an eye-opener for us, his parents. We had raised him and his brother to believe that they could do anything they wanted in life, as long as they were willing to work hard and make the right choices. We found out that that was true for only one of our sons, not both. It was then that we began to learn about the blatant discriminatory practices against the LGBTQ community and the violence that accompanied some of those practices. Even though both of our sons were born in Casper, Wyoming, in the middle of the United States, and even though both were American citizens, they were not considered equal.
Our gay son would not have been allowed the same rights as our straight son. Our gay son would not have been allowed to marry the person he loved if that person was another man. Our gay son would not have been allowed to serve in the military, not have been allowed to protect and defend the country he loved. Our gay son would not have been allowed to adopt, to bring someone into his home to be loved, cherished, supported, and encouraged as he was when he was growing up. Our gay son could have been fired from his job, simply because he was gay. All these so-called rights of American citizens, along with many others, that his straight brother enjoyed but he would never have been allowed to enjoy. Such blatant discrimination encourages bullying, vandalism, and other acts of violence, encouraging close-minded people to push harder against those they consider “different” because they don’t fit their pre-conceived notions of “same” and, thus, are intimidated by these “others”.
We realized that we could do nothing for Matt. It was too late for that. However, we could do something for Matt’s friends in the LGBTQ community, so we established the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Our mission is to empower individuals to embrace human dignity and diversity through outreach, advocacy and resource programs. We strive to replace hate with understanding, compassion, and acceptance. We educate the public, most notably members of the straight cisgender community, on the lack of civil rights protections for those who identify as LGBTQ.
It was understood that nothing would be accomplished at the federal level as long as George W. Bush was President. He opposed marriage equality, opposed the right of gays and lesbians to adopt children, and believed that private organizations had the right to discriminate against the LGBTQ community. It was understood that work needed to be done at the grassroots level to educate America on the inequities faced by LGBTQ American citizens. We worked closely with other people and groups to accomplish that goal, knowing that, sometime in the future, a person would be elected President who recognized and understood the destructive nature of discrimination and would support actions that protected all U.S. citizens, not just some.
In 2008, it happened. Barack Obama was elected President. He understood the historical effects of discrimination and the need for equal opportunities for all Americans. After much lobbying and, finally, verbal public acknowledgement, a law was passed and signed on October 29, 2009. It was the Matthew Shepard James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act – the first federal law to criminalize violence against members of the LGBTQ community. It expanded protections found in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, including some key protections for gender, gender identity, disability, and sexual orientation. It gave federal prosecutors and state district attorneys additional options to pursue to prosecute hate crimes. It also provided additional funding, if needed, for local and state law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of alleged hate crimes.
Less than two weeks from now, we will celebrate the ten-year anniversary of that hate crime law. In the past decade, this law was used dozens of times to investigate, prosecute, and convict individuals for inflicting violence against those deemed to be “others.” It has brought an additional weapon into the struggle against hate – helping to protect all citizens, especially those in marginalized communities who have the most to fear and the most to lose, including immigrants, racial and religious minorities, and the LGBTQ community.
The attorneys in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, many of whom we consider friends, are the enforcers of this law. You are the guardians against hate, discrimination, and bias-motivated violence. Since the passage of Shepard-Byrd, you have been led by four confirmed Attorneys General. Eric Holder, testifying before Congress in support of Shepard-Byrd stated, “One has to look at the unfortunate history of our nation. There are groups that have been singled out, that have been targets of violence. We have to face and confront that reality.” When referring to the seventh anniversary of the Shepard-Byrd law, Attorney General Loretta Lynch stated, “We are… concerned with crimes against our LGBT brothers and sisters… We have been active, bringing hate crimes cases in a number of states around the country… I… [will] meet with LGBT youth… to reaffirm the department’s steadfast commitment to the rights and well-being of all LGBTQ Americans.” By contrast, then Senator Jeff Sessions argued against passage of this law stating, “Some are protected groups and [will] get special protection under this law.”
Attorney General Barr stated in July that he was “deeply concerned about the rise in hate crimes and political violence that we have seen over the past decade.” He then declared that “[w]e must have zero tolerance for violence that is motivated by hatred for our fellow citizens whether based on race, sex, or creed.” While we agree with him on these points, we disagree with his statement later in that speech when he said, “Hate crime and civil rights prosecutions are important tools but they cannot solve the problem on their own. Hearts and minds must be changed, but that is not always a task to which the government is particularly well-suited.”
Mr. Barr represents the government and he is well-suited and has the power to change hearts and minds to promote diversity, inclusion, and equity among all groups of people, and drive out the forces of hate. As the head of the Department of Justice, he can take a stand as a member of this administration to disavow and condemn any person who fuels the fires of hate with their words and actions. He must lead and demonstrate his refusal to accept hate in all its manifestations. He must demonstrate courage, even if it means disagreeing with the administration. So far, he has done none of these deeds.
We find it interesting and hypocritical that he would invite us to this event commemorating a hate crime law named after our son and Mr. Byrd, while, at the same time, asking the Supreme Court to allow the legalized firing of transgender employees.
Mr. Barr, you cannot have it both ways. If you believe that employers should have the right to terminate transgender employees, just because they are transgender, then you believe they are lesser than and not worthy of protection. If so, you need not invite us to future events at the Department of Justice that are billed as celebrating the law that protects these same individuals from hate crimes. Either you believe in equality for all or you don’t. We do not honor our son by kowtowing to hypocrisy.
The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is the law of the land and is needed now more than ever. Unfortunately, we have seen government funding and resources shift to fighting international terrorism in the decade since the passage of Shepard-Byrd, despite the fact that hate crimes have led to far more deaths of Americans here at home. Acts that would be considered domestic terrorism in any other country.
For those of you who are career employees of the Department of Justice and truly believe in protecting all Americans from injustice, who believe in equal rights and representation for all Americans, who fight daily to protect the freedoms of all Americans, we thank you from the bottoms of our hearts. We never doubted your commitment or resolve to honor our son’s memory and legacy by enforcing this law. We appreciate all of the Assistant United States Attorneys and FBI agents who have joined our hate crime training initiatives. We understand how frustrating and thankless it is when you are fighting an uphill battle under today’s political climate and with little or no support or assistance from the administration. Don’t give up. Continue fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves. You are their most cherished friend, advisor, confidant, and protector.
We don’t want to see another incident or life lost as we lost Matt. Any loss of life, any loss of a job, any loss of desire to work towards fulfilling a person’s dreams and goals because of hate related words or actions is a loss to the local community where that person lives, a loss to the state where that person lives, and a loss to this country.
We look forward to a re-focus on the causes of hate crimes and the reduction of hate crime incidents as America changes direction and moves forward towards a more equal and just country.”
Judy and Dennis Shepard