Eighteen years ago, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard succumbed to the injuries sustained in a brutal hate crime six days prior. While his death led to a major legislative change in the United States, nearly two decades after his stunning murder, the LGBTQ community is still fighting for the rights they so desperately need.
On the night of October 6, 1998, Matthew was at a Laramie, Wyoming bar when he accepted a ride home from Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Instead of bringing Matthew home, however, the two men took him to a rural area where they beat and tortured him. The Wyoming University student was left to die on that fence, but was discovered 18 hours later by a cyclist who initially believed he was a scarecrow.
For nearly a week, the young man fought for his life in a hospital, but ultimately his brain stem injuries were just too massive and he passed away. His death sparked outrage across the country and was labeled a "hate crime" because of Matt's sexual orientation. At the time of murder, sexual orientation was not covered under federal nor Wyoming state law so when his murderers were caught they were not charged with a hate crime.
Although, McKinney and Henderson were tried and convicted for murder, activists across the country used Matthew's death to push for federal hate crime legislation. Unfortunately, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act wasn't signed into law until more than a decade later when President Obama took office.
Since Matthew's murder there is no doubt that the United States is a better place for the LGBTQ community. The federal government finally got rid of the archaic "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military policy, the Supreme Court passed marriage equality and gay couples are allowed to adopt children. However, our country still has a long way to go in its quest for equality.
Members of the LGBTQ community can still be fired in most states for being homosexual. In 2016 we still lack federal legislation to protect from employment discrimination based on sexual orientation in this country.
The community also continues to face housing discrimination in most states. Federal fair housing laws still do not offer gay and transgender people protection. Also, voter ID laws have the potential of disenfranchising thousands of transgender voters this Fall, in arguably the most important election of our lifetimes.
Furthermore, despite the advances we have made in the U.S,, LGBTQ youth still face disproportionately high rates of bullying, suicide, homelessness, dating violence, rape and depression. And earlier this year we witnessed the worst mass shooting in modern American history which was also the worst hate-crime we've experienced in decades at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
Sadly, the reason for the lack of progress we have made can be attributed to one thing: the Republican Party's blatant bigotry. The GOP still runs on a platform of hate and disdain for the LGBTQ community. One of the most obvious examples of this is their attempts to pass so-called "religious freedom" bills across the country that would grant anti-gay business owners from serving homosexual and transgender customers. The party has also attempted and passed a number of "bathroom bills" across the country in an attempt to deny the transgender community basic human rights.
The Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has said that if elected he will do everything he can to allow bigots in the USA to legally discriminate against the LGBTQ community.
In a letter written to CatholicVote.org the candidate said:
"As President, I promise that I will protect the rights of Catholics to live their faith, to serve their communities, and to act on their beliefs without fear. This approach one would think is just common sense. And I don’t care if people call it politically incorrect.... If Congress considers legislation such as the First Amendment Defense Act or the Conscience Protection Act a priority, then I will do all I can to make sure it comes to my desk for signature and enactment."
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has recently told the Philadelphia Gay News that LGBTQ rights will be a top priority for her administration:
If I’m fortunate enough to be elected president, I’ll protect the progress we’ve fought so hard to achieve — and I’ll keep fighting until every American can live free from discrimination and prejudice. That means working to pass the Equality Act. It would finally provide LGBT people full federal nondiscrimination protections in housing, employment and so much more.
One of the candidates wants to fight to "protect" a group of right-wing pseudo-Christians who claim that the government forcing them to respect the rights of the gay community is persecution. The other candidate wants to do everything she possibly can to allow this community to finally obtain the equality they have been fighting for for far too long. Hillary Clinton wants to honor Matthew Shepard's memory and Donald Trump wants to disparage it. If a more perfect union is what we strive for, the choice this November is undeniably clear.