Twenty years ago on 12 October 1998, young gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard died after being assaulted, tortured and left for dead six days earlier.
Shepard, 21, had met his two assailants in a bar in Laramie, Wyoming who offered him a ride home. Driving to a remote location, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson beat him, pistol-whipped him, took his credit cards and shoes, and left him tied to a fence—he was so badly beaten that when he was discovered comatose it was initially thought he was a scarecrow.
Although only one among many gay-bashings that happened—and continue to happen—worldwide—Shepard’s death became a symbol for the human rights concerns that were beginning to emerge around how LGBTQ people experienced life and belonging. Retrospectively, it can be seen as having been partly responsible for some of the social changes in attitude towards LGBTQ people from the late 1990s onwards.
Indeed, looking back over the past twenty years, it is clear to see that LGBTQ people have been far better recognised as human (and incorporated into the mission of human rights) today than in Shepard’s final year. Positive social change has occurred, some of it as a direct result of the global media and public attention to the violence and homophobia behind Matthew Shepard’s death, some of which has continued to remain topical and in ongoing circulation through re-telling the story in The Laramie Project, a 2002 film based on Moisés Kaufman’s stage play describing the reaction to Shepard’s murder.
Marriage equality has been articulated as a right in many countries around the world, young people are exploring new ways of articulating sexual and gender diversity that suit a contemporary, digital world, and in many parts of the world
However, marking Matthew Shepard’s death two decades on provides an important opportunity to also bear in mind that the project of fully accepting LGBTQ people on a global scale is not yet complete. Rather, there are many instances, policies and social frameworks that continue to treat LGBTQ people in the same way as Shepard experienced it: as something less than fully human.
In the Australian experience, for example, recent political debates on the provision of exemptions from anti-discrimination legislation for religious schools points to the ways in which young gay students are not necessarily felt as being treated the same as other students—as human beings with feelings and a right to belong.
Although Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has, after public pressure, backtracked on supporting a legislated right for religious schools to discriminate against gay and lesbian students, there has been an intensive period in which support for schools seeking to exclude students just for being gay has been taken seriously without recourse to human rights. This has followed a government review panel’s 2018 report which recommended legislation to ensure religious schools could reject or expel gay students or gay students who have become sexually active.
While the outcome is positive in that the public response has pushed the government into a progressive back-flip against homophobic policy, what is deeply alarming is that twenty years after a gay student was killed for being gay in the United States, it remains acceptable to even debate enshrining discrimination against sometimes-vulnerable minors at all.
In other parts of the world such as Russia, gay-related murders continue, with some evidence of deliberate targeting of young gay men to be killed for no reasons other than hatred of non-heterosexual.
Gay murder in Russia and debating homophobic policy in Australia might seem like two very distinct phenomena, separated by thousands of kilometres, different political systems, different cultures.
However, they might equally be understood as two points on a continuum of hate and de-humanisation, in which treating young non-heterosexual people as less than human in any context directly produces hate crime.
We have to honour Matthew Shepard for helping a global, transnational culture understand LGBTQ de-humanisation as hatred.
This does not, however, mitigate the fact that there is still a very long way to go to work out what we might mean by genuine inclusivity and belonging, and figuring out how—as a global society—can intervene to make both murder and policy-based exclusion absolutely unthinkable.