Oct. 13th, 2003

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Five years later, progress against gay hatred lags

By Judy Shepard
Posted 10/12/2003 7:35 PM

This weekend marked five years since my son Matthew's murder, which prompted unprecedented media coverage and focused the nation's attention on anti-gay hate crimes like never before.

Matthew was beaten to death by two men who are now serving life sentences. Five years ago I was a housewife and a mother. But I learned quickly that violent crimes against the gay community are actually a fairly common occurrence. It prompted my family to create a foundation in Matthew's memory.

I have spent the past five years traveling the nation, speaking at schools and churches and to anyone who would listen, to try to stem the tide of hate that is eating away at the fabric of our culture. Hate crimes against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are the most common after hate crimes involving race and religion.

Recently, I've been thinking about what really has changed — and more importantly, what has not — to make our communities safe from hatred against gays.

It's clear that in some ways our nation has become a more accepting place. We have witnessed the progress of gay and lesbian rights with the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Lawrence v. Texas, striking down that state's sodomy law. We have seen our neighbors to the north recognize same-sex marriages as deserving of equal rights and responsibilities as straight couples' marriages. We have seen growing visibility, understanding and acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in our families, in society and in the corporate world.

Still far to go

However, there has been scant progress in other areas, particularly in terms of legislation and securing rights for the gay community. We continue to fight for hate-crime legislation that includes protections based on sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. There is no federal law that includes job protection based on sexual orientation. Yes, you can fire someone simply for being gay or lesbian in 36 states of this nation.

It is as if we are living in two Americas — one that tunes in to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy but turns a blind eye to the injustices gay and lesbian people still face.

It is evident that with progress comes inevitable attack by those who are threatened by our work. In 2003, more than 30 cities and towns reported crimes against gays. Most of them do not garner national headlines like my son's murder did. Sakia Gunn, a 15-year-old lesbian, was fatally stabbed in Newark, N.J., on May 11 this year. F.C. Martinez, a Navajo, transgender 16-year-old, was murdered in a hate-motivated attack in 2001. The list goes on and on.

Furthermore, changes in the "environment" heighten hate-crime activity. In New York City every July, anti-gay violence usually increases by about 8% above other times of the year as people respond to the outreach programs and the visibility of gay pride celebrations. Even after the Lawrence v. Texas decision and the appearance of gay television shows, anti-gay violence in New York City rose 52%. We still have far to go.

Redouble efforts

On this fifth year since I lost my son, I plan to redouble my efforts to find solutions to this problem. One solution begins with parents. We have the opportunity to teach our children to understand and accept diversity long before hate can provoke violent reactions.

We can "arm" them with this education before their school years begin and require our educators to continue the job after that. Hate is a learned behavior, but it's never too late to empower a young adult with the tools to improve his or her life choices and beliefs.

If a child is taught to hate and fear diversity at home, then the next place he or she gets to practice hate is in the halls of education. Ten percent of hate crimes occur at schools and colleges. A gay teen is bashed; a disabled teen is tormented; a Jewish, black or Muslim teen is taunted. The cycle continues, until that hate-filled child becomes a citizen in our community, and sometimes, a perpetrator.

Teach your children to accept and understand diversity because the consequences of hate hurt the families of the victim. It also hurts the families of the perpetrators. Lives are ended and lives are changed forever.

Judy Shepard is founder and executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, www.matthewshepard.org.



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