Joe Biden has marked the 25th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, a gay 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who died six days after he was beaten by two young men, tied to a fence, burned and abandoned in a remote part of the state.
Shepard’s death has long been memorialized as a hate crime that helped fuel the LGBTQ+ rights movement. Lamenting “a brutal act of hate and violence that shocked our nation and the world”, the US president, in a statement on Thursday, said Shepard was murdered “simply for being himself”.
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“Matthew’s tragic and senseless murder shook the conscience of the American people,” the president said. “And his courageous parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, turned Matthew’s memory into a movement, galvanizing millions to combat the scourge of anti-LGBTQ+ hate and violence in America.”
Biden said he had been honored, as vice-president to Barack Obama, to help enact the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr Hate Crimes Prevention Act, “which extended federal hate crimes laws to cover sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability”.
“Our charge is to continue the fight against hate, against violence, and against bigotry in all its forms,” he said. “Today, as threats and violence targeting the LGBTQ+ community continue to rise, our work is far from finished. No American should face hate or violence for who they are or who they love.
“I once again call on Congress to send the Equality Act to my desk so that we can ensure LGBTQ+ Americans have full civil rights protections under our laws – because every American is worthy of dignity, acceptance, and respect.”
The Equality Act would extend federal civil rights protections to LGBTQ+ Americans.
LGBTQ+ activists said progress since Shepard’s death had been slow but steady. But any perception that the struggle for equality had been won has been belied by events over the past two years.
Last year, five people were killed in a shooting at an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado. More than 20 Republican-controlled states have enacted anti-LGBTQ+ laws including bans on sports participation and certain care for young transgender people, as well as restrictions on how schools can broach LGBTQ+-related topics.
“Undoubtedly we’ve made huge progress but it’s all at risk,” said Kevin Jennings, chief executive of Lambda Legal, which has litigated against some anti-LGBTQ+ laws. “Anybody who thinks that once you’ve won rights they’re safe doesn’t understand history. The opponents of equality never give up. They’re like the Terminator – they’re not going to stop coming until they take away your rights.”
Some new laws are directed at the entire LGBTQ+ community, such as Florida’s so-called “don’t say gay” law, which bans and restricts lessons in public schools about sexual orientation and gender identity. But in many Republican-governed states, including Florida, the prime target has been transgender people. Some laws also restrict pronouns trans students use.
“What we’ve said in Florida is we are going to remain a refuge of sanity and a citadel of normalcy,” said the governor, Ron DeSantis, as he signed such bills earlier this year. “We’re not doing the pronoun Olympics in Florida.”
Shannon Minter, a transgender civil rights lawyer with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, depicted the wave of anti-trans bills as the one of the gravest threats to LGBTQ+ Americans in his 30 years of activism.
“We are in danger now, given the ferocity of this backlash,” Minter said. “If we don’t stop this with sufficient urgency, we’ll end up with half the country living with very significant bias and lack of legal protection.”
Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, depicted a “backlash to our progress”.
“We made so much progress as an LGBTQ+ movement, at a fast pace compared to other social justice movements,” he said. “You do have a minority who is overwhelmingly upset by it. They are fired up and they are well-resourced.”
James Esseks, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBTQ & HIV Project, pointed to the US supreme court same-sex marriage ruling in 2015. At the time, he said, many activists were thinking elatedly, “OK, we’re kind of done.”
“But the other side pivoted to attacking trans people and seeking religious exemptions to get a right to discriminate against gay people. Both of those strategies, unfortunately, have been quite successful.”
As Biden marked the anniversary of Shepard’s death, the communications director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, Cathy Renna, recalled being involved in media coverage of the murder in 1998.
“It shapes the way you do your advocacy for the rest of your life,” she said. “It got many people involved. It was a lightbulb – realizing that hate crimes are a thing that happens.”
Associated Press contributed reporting