Can Matthew Shepard's Memory Prevent Future Hate Crimes?

Eleven years after Matthew Shepard was fatally beaten for being gay, his mother Judy is releasing a memoir about his life and death. An excerpt and interview in Newsweek reveal her efforts to spare others from her son's fate.

The excerpt describes the terrifying moment when Judy Shepard and her husband Dennis found out that their son was in a coma. Because Dennis was working Saudi Arabia, the couple had to wait nearly a day before they could return to the US to see Matthew. Shepard writes,

Dennis and I had only limited information about the extent of Matt's injuries, and absolutely no information about the circumstances surrounding his attack. We knew he was critically injured and that his hold on life was tenuous, at best. Still, our highest hope at that point was for Matt's complete recovery. Our most basic, and perhaps most realistic, hope was that he would hold on to life until we could be with him, by his side.

Unfortunately, Matthew Shepard died on October 12, 1998. In an interview, his mom talks to Newsweek's Kate Dailey about her son, a young man like any other whose death has made him a symbol for a cause. She emphasizes that Matthew wasn't perfect, saying,

We get so much mail and e-mail from young kids who say how much they admire Matt and want to emulate his life, and how they wish they could straighten out their drug use or their depression or whatever. They seem to have the misconception that Matt never went through all that angst, and he totally did. [...] I just want people to know that he just wasn't that angelic young man that some have tried to portray him as or want him to be. It wouldn't be fair to Matt to not remember him with all the foibles and wrinkles of his real life.

On the other hand, Matthew Shepard is now the namesake of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which Judy Shepard directs and which conducts a variety of initiatives aimed at reducing LGBT discrimination. Judy Shepard says,

We thought there was a small amount of time, this window of opportunity for maybe our name, Matt's name, could make a difference. We wanted to take advantage of that.

One way she and the Foundation are trying to do so is through the Matthew Shepard Act, which the Foundation's website calls a "response to the unrelenting and under-addressed problem of violent hate crimes committed against individuals based on actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability." The bill — championed, Judy Shepard mentions, by Ted Kennedy — would expand existing hate crime laws to prosecute crimes based on "actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability." Current law recognizes a hate crime only if the victim was targeted because of race, color, religion or national origin.

The Matthew Shepard Act could impose stiffer penalties not only on homophobes like Shepard's killers Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, but also on criminals like George Sodini who target women. As Judy Shepard points out, it also includes a provision for anti-hate-crime education. She says,

If we find people doing basic things like graffiti on a synagogue, where there's no actual person that's the victim, you can educate them about what diversity is and how respect moves our country forward. If we could change one person's mind, that's brilliant.

The hate crime legislation that bears Matthew Shepard's name was passed as part of the Senate's defense spending bill this July. Since the House and Senate versions of this bill differ, it's still in committee — and Sen. Jeff Sessions introduced an amendment to allow the death penalty for hate crime murders, which Michael Cole of HRC Back Story calls "a poison pill designed to kill the bill." So it still remains to be seen what Matthew Shepard's legacy will be.

A Phone Call That Changed Everything [Newsweek]
The Meaning of Matthew: Judy Shepard On Her New Memoir, Her Son's Lasting Legacy, And Moving Forward While Looking Back [Newsweek]
Matthew Shepard Foundation [Official Site]