Posted by: Rainbow411 / GSHRadio on 01/10/2017

Lessons Learned: The Fight to Pass Hate-Crimes Legislation

Lessons Learned: The Fight to Pass Hate-Crimes Legislation



This story is the first in a series on challenges faced and victories achieved in the fight for LGBT equality. This battle continues, especially with Donald Trump as president-elect, but we won't win unless we learn from the past.

It was a tragedy that shocked the nation and spurred it to action: a 21-year-old gay college student, beaten nearly to death and left hanging on a fence, dying six days later.

The murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998 in Laramie, Wyo., attracted far more attention than most other hate crimes before or since. Perhaps it was the sheer viciousness of the attack; perhaps it was his small stature and vulnerability; perhaps it was his “relatability” — which, to some people, arose from his being white and middle-class.

But in any case, Shepard’s death renewed the call for hate-crimes laws that covered crimes motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation, actual or perceived, and, later, led to a call for laws to include crimes based on the victim’s gender identity. It resulted in Congress passing and President Obama signing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the first pro-LGBT federal law. The journey to getting the law passed, however, wasn’t quick or easy.

It didn’t make it through Congress until 2009, 11 years after Shepard’s death, and calls for a gay-inclusive hate-crimes law had been coming from organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League for several years before his murder, notes Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother; one was even introduced in 1997 by Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. She testified before Congress in 1999 about the need for such a law, and at the time thought because it had the support of President Bill Clinton, it would be an easy sell.

But no such legislation passed during Clinton’s presidency, which ended in 2001. “I thought, initially, that if the president supports it, Congress will fall in line,” says Judy Shepard, now board president at the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which she and her family set up to address hate crimes and other LGBT and social justice issues. “The lesson I learned is that you really do have to educate the constituents.”

While learning that more than presidential support was needed, Shepard and her allies also saw that presidential opposition could be an insurmountable barrier. George W. Bush opposed expanding the federal hate-crimes law, so while several members of Congress introduced bills with this goal during his presidency, none of the legislation made it to his desk. The original federal hate-crimes law, passed in 1968, covered crimes motivated by the victim’s race, religion, or national origin only.

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