Ten years after Matthew Shepard’s murder, we need to act

It has been 10 years since openly gay college student Matthew Shepard was brutally killed in Wyoming. On Oct. 6, 1998, he was beaten and strung up on a fence. He died six days later.

Unfortunately, little has been done to curb such attacks, and elected leaders at the state and federal level are largely missing-in-action when it comes to protecting our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) loved ones.

In the days and weeks immediately following Shepard’s death, numerous elected leaders promised swift action to pass federal hate crimes legislation that would protect LGBT Americans.

Ten years later, the bill, which bears Shepard’s name, has never become law.

The need for the law is as urgent now as it was in 1998. Hate crimes against the LGBT community increased 24 percent nationwide last year, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. Especially startling increases occurred in Michigan (up 207 percent), Minnesota (up 135 percent) and even in Los Angeles, which saw a 100 percent increase in anti-gay violence in 2007.

Anti-gay murders doubled, the coalition reported.

In California, student Lawrence King was gunned down in his school by a classmate who believed King was gay.

In Colorado, Angie Zapata, a young transgender woman, was attacked and killed while on a date.

In South Carolina, Sean Kennedy was viciously beaten outside a local gay bar, and later died from his injuries.

And right now, in the nation’s capital, the gay community is on heightened alert following at least three anti-gay attacks in neighborhoods generally considered safe for LGBT Washingtonians.

Those numbers, and those stories, should shock Americans and spur them to take action.

Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) recently partnered with Sean Kennedy’s mother to launch a petition calling on lawmakers to pass, and President Bush to sign, the Matthew Shepard Act.

The bill would provide much-needed assistance to state and local law enforcement agencies in investigating and prosecuting violent, bias-motivated crimes. Virtually every major law enforcement organization in the country has endorsed the bill, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National District Attorneys Association, the National Sheriffs Association, the Police Executive Research Forum, and 31 state attorneys general.

Our country cannot wait another decade, and endure countless more attacks on our families, before Congress takes action.

In Matthew Shepard’s name, let’s get it done.

Steve Ralls is communications director for PFLAG. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.