Is gay bashing a hate crime? Does it merit prosecution and punishment as a hate crime? The murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21 year old student at the University of Wyoming, in 1998 ignited the debate over these questions when it was alleged his assailants Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson targeted him because he was gay. In the course of the court proceedings against Aaron McKinney in November 1999, Prosecutor Calvin Rerucha stated:
The two had led Shepard to believe they were gay. Matthew, believing they wanted to discuss the politics and struggle of the gay movement, followed McKinney and Henderson into their truck. After getting in the truck, Henderson said “McKinney pulled out a gun and told Matthew Shepard to give him his wallet.” McKinney said “Guess what. We’re not gay. And you’re gonna get jacked.” When Matthew refused, McKinney hit him with the gun. With Henderson behind the wheel, they drove more than a mile outside Laramie, as Matthew begged for his life, McKinney struck him while Henderson laughed. “He (McKinney) told me to get a rope out of the truck,” Henderson said. According to Henderson, McKinney allegedly tied Shepard’s beaten body to a wooden split-rail post fence, robbed him of his wallet and patent leather shoes, continued to beat him and then left him to die for over 18 hours bleed profusely in near freezing temperatures “with only the constant Wyoming wind as his companion.” (as cited in Matthew Shepard)
His assailants pistol whipped him so severely he had suffered fractures to the back of his head and in front of his right ear. He experienced severe brainstem damage, which affected his body’s ability to regulate heart rate, body temperature, and other vital functions. There were also about a dozen small lacerations around his head, face, and neck. His injuries were deemed too severe for doctors to operate. He never regained consciousness, succumbing to his injuries at 12:53 a.m. on October 12, 1998, at Poudre Valley Hospital, in Fort Collins, Colorado.
I remember being horrified when hearing news reports of Matthew Shepard’s murder. The savagery unleashed on him by his assailants was just so unimaginable. Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were tried separately on charges of kidnapping and murder, convicted on both counts and handed life sentences for both crimes to be served consecutively. They will die in prison. In the aftermath of their son’s murder, Dennis and Judy Shepard established the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Its stated aim is “… to honor Matthew in a manner that was appropriate to his dreams, beliefs, and aspirations, the Foundation seeks to “Replace Hate with Understanding, Compassion, & Acceptance” through its varied educational, outreach and, advocacy programs and by continuing to tell Matthew’s story.” In addition, Judy Shepard joined in the campaign for the inclusion of sexual orientation in hate crimes laws in the United States. It was a tough fight, but she prevailed when on October 28, 2009 President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard Act into law.
Opposition to the campaign for the inclusion of sexual orientation in hate crimes laws in the United States was tenacious and came from the ranks of religious and social conservative interests such as James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family who hold the belief that homosexuality is either a lifestyle choice or a mental disorder that afflicts a miniscule percentage of the population; therefore gay people are not a legitimate minority and to include sexual orientation in hate crimes laws gives gay people “special rights.” These “special rights” according to James Dobson include:
universal acceptance of the gay lifestyle, discrediting of scriptures that condemn homosexuality, muzzling of the clergy and Christian media, granting of special privileges and rights in the law, overturning laws prohibiting pedophilia, indoctrinating children and future generations through public education, and securing all the legal benefits of marriage for any two or more people who claim to have homosexual tendencies.
That James Dobson and like minded people hold such egregious thoughts and beliefs about homosexuality is disappointing to me personally, and certainly not very nice for gay people from families who subscribe to these beliefs, but I find satisfaction in the fact that US society is moving forward in spite of this opposition. Attitudes toward gay people are changing in the United States with the opinion of the majority favouring acceptance as polls listed by the American Enterprise Institute in March 2013 indicate. Earlier this month (May 2013), the states of Delaware, Minnesota and Rhode Island enacted legislation that gives same sex couples the right to marry joining the states of Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Washington, plus the District of Columbia that allow same sex marriage. The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) is expected to hand down a judgement in June (2013) on the legality of 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between a male and a female for federal purposes, and California’s Proposition 8, a 2008 voter initiative that narrowly overturned the state’s Supreme Court ruling that granted gays and lesbians the right to marry. It is anyone’s guess as to how the SCOTUS will rule on these cases, but whatever the outcome the movement toward marriage equality will move forward.
While this is all very encouraging, a recent incident in New York City where a gay couple Nick Porto and Kevin Atkins were attacked and beaten in broad daylight on May 5, 2013 in plain view of passersby serves as a sobering reminder there are still elements of US society who think it just fine to harass and assault gay people or people they perceive to be gay. The New York City Police Department is investigating the crime and searching for the assailants, having released surveillance photos of one of the men suspected to have taken part. Whether or not this proves to have been a hate crime is up to the courts to decide, but this incident brings home the reality to gay people that this remains a possibility wherever you choose to live. The fact that this attack took place in broad daylight in the middle of New York City in front of people who stood by and did nothing save take photographs and videos of the attack is frightening. Still, I do not think there is any need for panic. I am confident that most people are duly horrified and disgusted with this crime and want to see that justice is served. I hope, also, that the wider heterosexual society will more fully appreciate the fact that gay people still face discrimination and in extreme cases outright hatred which does, sometimes, manifest itself in gay bashing.
Posted by Geoffrey