Shepard bill targets hate crimes

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

It was a cold night in October 1998 when Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson offered University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard a ride home from a bar in Laramie, Wyo. Matthew never made it home. McKinney and Henderson bound Shepard to a fence, pistol-whipped him, and left him for dead — all because Matthew was gay.

I was 12 at the time, and unaware of what being “gay” meant. But as time passed, I realized more how Shepard’s beating would be the defining moment in causing the country to examine its hatred for those outside the norm.

Almost nine years later, I look at Shepard’s beating through the eyes of a confident and self-aware gay male. I’m not ashamed of who I am, but every time I pass a group of rowdy heterosexual males after a long night of studying on campus I can’t help but wonder — will it happen to me? Will I be the victim of violence, simply because I am gay?

The Senate officially passed the Matthew Shepard Act on Sept. 27, a hate-crimes bill that would expand the definition of a hate crime to include crimes committed against those targeted for their sexual orientation.

Current hate-crime laws limit the definition of a hate crime to those acts committed due to bias against a particular race or religion.

Though the House and the Senate both passed the bill, it still must go through President Bush’s hands. The White House has issued no formal statement, but Bush previously said that he would veto any such legislation. Others have questioned the necessity of the bill. Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman wrote, “murder is against the law, even in Wyoming, and ... Shepard’s attackers are now serving sentences that would not be any longer if this law had been in effect then.”

Chapman felt that, when it comes down to it, murder is simply murder.

What individuals like Chapman fail to see is that there is a difference between murdering a random person and murdering a person of a particular community as an act of intimidation towards other members of that community.

I remember when I first came out in high school. Someone had stolen my yearbook, and when I finally found it laying in a hallway, “faggot” and “You will burn in hell” were scribbled throughout it. The culprits were caught and received a mere slap on the wrist. I felt bewildered, hated myself, hated other gay men, and hated the world. Had it not been for a very supportive family, I might still be living in a stagnant pool of self-hatred. Or worse, I might not be living at all. And I’m not alone — according to the Census Bureau, thousands across this country face the same type of intimidation, both in and out of school.

But regardless of age, coming into one’s sexual identity is a fragile time where intimidation and hatred can do their worst damage on an individual.

If President Bush vetoes the bill, two-thirds of the House and Senate will have to vote in favor of the bill to pass it again. I lost faith long ago in the President’s making the right decision. I can only hope that the House and Senate will recognize how important passing this bill is. Hopefully, in the future, it will deter members of our society from intimidating others who are different.

I will continue to hope that my children will never have to face a moment where they are labeled because of what makes them different.