Mourners gathered Thursday night in Washington’s Dupont Circle to remember the gay college student whose murder changed the way we think about hate crimes, and call attention to the battles that remain.
It’s been 20 years since Matthew Shepard was robbed, pistol-whipped and tied to a fence by two men he met in a bar in Laramie, Wyoming. He was left in the freezing cold overnight, and a cyclist who thought he was a scarecrow discovered him. He later died in a hospital.
Shepard’s ashes will be interred Friday at the Washington National Cathedral — the only place where his parents felt they would be safe from desecration.
His death galvanized the LGBTQ civil rights movement, leading to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, also named for a black man who was killed by three white supremacists in Texas.
Speakers at Thursday’s candlelight vigil told those in attendance that the fight continues for equal rights and treatment for the LGBTQ community, especially transgender and gender-nonconforming people.
The world is a different place than it was when Shepard was killed, said Rev. V. Gene Robinson, who will carry his ashes and preside over Friday’s service.
“But the kind of hatred and violence that killed Matthew Shephard is alive and well and living in this country,” Robinson told CNN affiliate WJLA.
“We’ve grown more likely to label some people ‘other’ and treat them horribly. … Every good person I know needs to stand up and say that’s not who we are,” Robinson said.
Several speakers drew attention to the plight of transgender and gender-nonconforming people, who are protected under the hate crimes act, but have lost other protections under the Trump administration.
With the din of traffic humming in the background, one speaker read aloud the names of 28 transgender people killed in 2018.
“Today, we can change our gender marker on our IDs but we can lose our lives on the streets of these cities simply by someone finding out that we are transgender,” another speaker said.
A recent New York Times report of an administration proposal to exclude transgender people from anti-discrimination laws stoked fears of more losses. Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, called on the gay community to stand with transgender people in their fight for legal protections from discrimination.
“We can’t just say the ‘T’ at the other end of the initials and not do the hard work of getting to know them and love them and then stand with them,” he said.