By Jack Nichols
Two days before Matthew Shepard's death, 500 had already marched in a Fort Collins, Wyoming candlelight vigil honoring the 21 year-old student who had been viciously attacked and tortured by homophobic thugs near Laramie where he attended the University of Wyoming. (See GayToday, Top Story, Archives, October 12)
Shepard, who was discovered last Thursday tied to a fence and brutally bludgeoned, never regained consciousness. His alleged killers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, and their accomplices, Kristen L. Price and Chastity V. Pasley, now face first-degree murder charges.
The Denver Post responded to the tragedy by publishing questionable remarks by accused killer McKinney's father. The elder McKinney, allowed ample space in the Wyoming newspaper to complain there's is too much interest shown about the murder by the national media, said: "Had this been a heterosexual these two boys decided to take out and rob, this never would have made the national news."
CNN, strangely, covered Shepard's death by asking the following opening question: "Was Matthew Shepard killed because of what he had (i.e. robbery) or because of who he was (i.e. gay)?" In spite of significant evidence to the contrary, it appeared that homophobic right wing media moguls were already attempting to downsize Shepard's death, calling it "robbery" and "not a hate crime."
The dead student's death is also being publicized by these same news "hounds" who are using comments by the killer's girlfriend, namely that Shepard, who was 5'2" tall and weighed only 110 lbs., had particularly enraged Aaron McKinney by flirting with him. In fact it was McKinney who targeted Shepard as his victim by seeking him out in a bar and telling him he was gay so that Shepard would leave the bar with him.
News of Shepard's murder spread quickly from coast to coast as Monday's lead story in mainstream media. GayToday's office telephones were particularly busy Monday afternoon as callers vented their fury. From Los Angeles, veteran gay activist Morris Kight telephoned to announce a West Hollywood march that would begin Monday evening at the Weho Lounge on Santa Monica Boulevard and wend its way eastward to a rally in Crescent Heights.
This afternoon in Laramie, Wyoming State Representative Wende Barker (D-Laramie); spokespersons from statewide and national lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organizations including the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) as well as a close friend of Shepard's, Hauva Manookin, will speak at 12:30 p.m. on the desperate need for hate crimes legislation on the state and federal levels.
The press conference is scheduled to take place just prior to the preliminary hearing of the alleged attackers at the Albany County Courthouse.
"Because of homophobic attitudes, every attempted bias crime bill so far to be proposed in the state legislature has been blocked," said State Representative Mike Massie (D-Laramie).
"The viciousness of the attack on Matt clearly shows how critical this kind of legislation is. The attack was fueled by the kind of ignorance and intolerance that we as Americans must condemn in the strongest terms possible."
Matt's close friend Hauva Manookin added, "As devastated as we are by this tragedy, we know this embodies Matt's commitment to justice and human rights. I hope that hate crimes legislation will be passed so that some sense can come from this tragedy."
Elizabeth Birch, Executive Director of the Human Rights Campaign, reacted to Shepard's murder, saying: "With a profound sense of sorrow we mourn the death of Matthew Shepard. We are deeply saddened by this tragedy and we offer our thoughts and prayers to the Shepard family."
The Reverend Troy Perry, Founder and Moderation of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, said: "If there is any ray of light today, it is that Matt's life and death have served to bring us together and have reminded us in powerful ways of the sanctity and dignity of every life."
On his way to his waiting helicopter at the White House, President Bill Clinton told reporters:``The public outrage in Laramie and all across America today echoes what we heard at the White House Conference on Hate Crimes last year...There is something we can do about this. Congress needs to pass our tough hate crimes legislation. It can do so even before it adjourns, and it should do so. I hope that in the grief of this moment for Matthew Shepherd's family and in the shared outrage across America, Americans will once again search their hearts and do what they can to reduce their own fear and anxiety and anger at people who are different. And I hope that Congress will pass the hate crime legislation.'