Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, was kidnapped, robbed, and pistol-whipped near Laramie, Wyo., in October 1998. He died five days after being left tied to a fence for nearly 24 hours in near-freezing temperatures. At the time of his death, Rebecca Isaacs, political director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said, "There is incredible symbolism about being tied to a fence. People have likened it to a scarecrow. But it sounded like a crucifixion."
In the more than ten years since Shepard’s death, Matthew’s mother, Judy Shepard, has worked tirelessly to protect others from violence based on sexual orientation. Critics of hate crimes legislation have argued that it was not needed because state and federal laws already outlaw violence against individuals.
Despite countless setbacks, Judy Shepard forged ahead — determined to see Congress pass hate crimes legislation that would protect gay, lesbian, transgender and disabled people. Without these protections, Michael Lieberman of the Anti-Defamation League pointed out, "Why would you bother to report that you’d been the victim of a hate crime unless you thought that law enforcement officials were going to take it seriously?"
Judy Shepard’s hard work was realized on October 22 when the Senate voted 68-29 to extend new federal protections to people who are victims of violent crime because of their sex or sexual orientation. Senator Patrick Leahy, who helped ensure that The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was attached to the conference report for the bill outlining the Pentagon’s budget, said, "I am proud that Congress has come together to show that violence against members of any group because of who they are will not be tolerated in this country." Joining human rights and LGBT advocates across the country in praise of the bill’s passage, Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said, "We now can begin the important steps of erasing hate in our country."
At a ceremony at the White House last night, President Obama signed the bill into law.