Anti-LGBT violence continues, 15 years after Matthew Shepard

Today is the 15th anniversary of the murder of Matthew Shepard. The following is a reflection from GLAAD's Acting President, Dave Montez, on GLAAD's work with the media following Matthew's murder and on GLAAD's continuing role to raise awareness of anti-LGBT violence.

He could have been your son. Your brother. A classmate. He could have been a friend of mine in 1998 living not far from where I lived.  And there he was.   Tied to a Wyoming fence, left for dead.  Fifteen years ago this week, Matthew Shepard’s changed the public conversation about hate crimes in America.

His death was a game changer.

Matthew Shepard has become a symbol of anti-LGBT violence in America. The story of his murder leapt into the mainstream media and went into the hearts and minds of all Americans, gay and straight.   Not since Harvey Milk had our community had such a public tragic icon, and we haven’t had one since.

Matthew’s mother, Judy, spoke from the heart in those early days and has continued to be a truth teller ever since.  She has paved the way to acceptance for millions of parents of LGBT kids, no doubt saving lives every day.

I had recently moved to Denver and I remember vividly the blanket of sadness that covered the LGBT community.  As our sadness turned to outrage, people were hungry for answers.  How could this happen?  And as the media began to cover the tragedy, I worried.  Could we rely on the media to be fair and accurate?

Turns out I didn’t need to worry.

Joan Garry, then GLAAD’s executive director, told me “We understood immediately the importance of telling this story, ensuring that journalists get it right. We put staff on the ground, trained students and local authorities to speak to the media, orchestrated press conferences and had endless conversations with journalists.  We knew it was our role to elevate the story coming out of Laramie, the whole story, and in so doing, to create a national sense of outrage and to drive people to action.”

Fifteen years later, as I stand at the helm of this same organization, I think about this work.  Matthew’s story still resonates. Through the work of many advocates, led by his mom, there is now a federal hate crimes bill.  And yet, since 1988, there have been 274 anti-LGBT murders, just like Matthew's, reported to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. In 2011 there were 30 anti-LGBT murders across the country, the highest number ever recorded.

Transgender women of color have been particularly targeted for attacks and violence. Transgender people are doubly victimized when media outlets consistently mis-name and mis-gender those who were brutally taken.

Last summer, even the veritable LGBT metropolis of New York City was not immune to a rash of violence against LGBT people.  New York saw a 4% in violence against LGBT people.

At a rally against anti-LGBT violence in New York, I chatted with Sharon Stapel, the Executive Director of the Anti-Violence Project. I told her that sometimes GLAAD gets criticized as being the 'word police.' Her response was priceless, "It always starts with words. The minute you let that slide, violence is almost always the next step."

Despite our continued efforts at GLAAD to raise national awareness, these murders often don't get more than local media attention. Most people continue to be unaware of the violence faced by our brothers and sisters, who, like Matthew, are trying to live their lives from day to day.

On the fifteenth anniversary of Matthew's death, we need to open our eyes to a new generation of violence against LGBT people. We spend this anniversary not looking back at Matthew's murder, but looking forward with a continuing commitment to work with the media to ensure that these stories are told.  GLAAD will continue to call on the media to share the stories of victims of anti-LGBT violence, raising awareness ensuring that these victims, like Matthew, do not die in vain. Our work continues until each person is honored and respected for who they are and who they love.

Joan Garry once asked Judy Shepard,  “What is the stupidest question you’ve been asked by a reporter?”  She didn’t hesitate, "Murders like Matthew's don't happen very often, do they?"

Yes journalists, they do.  It’s your job to tell them and ours to ensure that you do.