Initially written for 21bis.be on April 14, 2019.
The student Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered 21 years ago because he was gay. Since then he has been a symbol of gay rights in the United States. Today, the number of hate crimes in America appears to be rising again, after declining for 25 years. Jason Marsden, CEO of the Matthew Shepard Foundation explains how the foundation fights hate.
On the night of October 6, 1998, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was approached by two men, Aaron McKinney and Russel Henderson, when he was drinking alone in a local bar. The police suspect they pretended to be gay to lure Matthew with them. Aaron McKinney later described Matthew in his confession as the queer, fag and fagot.
‘The murder shocked the United States’
The perpetrators drove Matthew to a remote place where they robbed him and beat him 19 to 21 times with a gun. The last blow irreparably damaging his brain stem. Matthew never could have lived normally again. They tied him to a fence where he was found unconscious 18 hours later. Matthew’s face was covered with blood, except where his tears had left traces on his cheeks.
Six days later Matthew died in the hospital surrounded by his family. It only took a few days for Matthew’s story to break the news worldwide.
Talk show host Ellen Degeneres spoke on Matthew’s vigil in Washington D.C. President Clinton sent a White House representative to his funeral.
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The murder shocked America and brought attention to hate crimes against minority groups. A few months later, Matthew’s mum Judy Shepard founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation in Colorado.
Today, the organization is committed to end all forms of hatred, intolerance and discrimination in America and beyond.
An FBI report on hate crime proves that the work of the foundation is still needed today. In America the number of hate crimes increased three years in a row and in 2017, crimes even increased by 17% compared to the previous year.
And it is a global issue, because LGBT people do not yet have equal rights in all countries. In Europe, on average one in three European gays and lesbians felt recently discriminated against, figures from an OECD report teach us.
That discrimination occurred on the street, at work or behind the school desks. In the UK, even half of the participants felt discriminated against recently.
‘LGBTQ kids should not have the feeling that they should commit suicide.’
Safety and protection
The Matthew Shepard Foundation not only focuses on LGBTQ problems, but works to erase hate crimes against all minority groups.
Jason Marsden was a friend of Matthew himself, and has been CEO of the Matthew Shepard Foundation for over ten years. “We ask for more attention and education on hate crimes so that communities understand these crimes better,” says Jason.
The main focus of the foundation is safety for all minority groups. According to Jason, we must ensure that children can go to school safely, that LGBTQ people can walk streets safely and that they can go to work safely.
Jason: “LGBTQ youth shouldn’t feel like they have to commit suicide or run away from home and end up on the street as sex workers.” In the United States, the risk of suicide is 3.5 times higher with LGBTQ youth than with other young people.
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“We must continue to protect people from HIV, and finish the work that started in the 1980s. If the political situation does not change, and it remains difficult for LGBTQ youth in rural areas and in religious families, more accidents will happen. ”
Start with yourself
“If you notice discrimination or hatred in your environment and you do something about it immediately, it can change the world,” Jason shares.
“If everyone tries to stop as much inequality as possible and doesn’t wait and hope that the damage to our democracy remains limited, hate crimes can stop.”
“Convince the three coolest kids that it is not okay to bully”
“We must focus on young people”
To achieve these changes, the Matthew Shepard Foundation is focusing on, among other things, school activities.
The organization gives lectures in high schools and even works with young children from the first grade. Jason: “We need to focus on young people. Because in an instant they are in their thirties and again tell their children what is right and what is wrong.”
“That’s why the best thing we can do to combat bullying and discrimination is to let children set the standards for their classmates.” Jason believes that bullying can stop if you convince the three coolest kids in a class that it’s really not okay is to bully. Most classmates then follow.
“We ask children if they ever treated others badly because they were different or if others ever treated them differently for who they are. Together with them, we look for better ways to interact with each other. ”
“At the foundation we think it is important to empower children.” Because with compassion in mind, you make better decisions and you treat others better according to Jason.
Another initiative of the foundation is MatthewsPlace.com, an online refuge for and by LGBTQ youth, where you can make friends, read and write articles and find information about guidance and help.
Jason grew up in a conservative village, Sheridan, in the 80s: times without internet. “As a teenager, I found no evidence that there was a gay community in Wyoming.” He believes that an online platform like MatthewsPlace makes a world of difference because it helps young people get out of their isolation and encourages greater understanding and tolerance.
Difficult anti-discrimination laws
In the United States, there is a federal law named after Matthew Shepard, which provides more extensive protection to minority groups in hate crimes.
But 40 out of 50 American states have their own anti-discrimination laws, and five states have none at all. “Sometimes those laws protect LGBTQ people, sometimes not. And sometimes they don’t protect trans people, “Jason explains.
We appreciate Chief McManus’ leadership & dedication to hate crimes enforcement.
— Matthew Shepard Foundation (@MattShepardFDN) March 21, 2019
If an agent officer were to move to another state and starts working there, everything he or she knows about anti-discrimination laws changes. That often makes it difficult for average police officers to understand the laws. So the Matthew Shepard Foundation also offers training for them.
“We try to make the police aware that minority groups exist. That way the police get a better bond with them, and if something goes wrong, justice is greater. ”
No gays in Wyoming
One of the five American states that has no anti-discrimination law is Wyoming, the state where Matthew Shepard was murdered 21 years ago.
According to Jason, it is a sign that the state deliberately sends to LGBTQ people.
“If it depended on the lawmakers of Wyoming, there just wouldn’t be any gay people living in Wyoming at all. Then they could all sit in their churches, and be around people who are exactly like themselves.”
But the foundation continues to convince them to nevertheless adopt anti-discrimination laws.
The foundation is active in many areas, and tries to eradicate hatred every day, but Jason realizes that it is still very hard to change people’s mindset. “Matthew’s story is very strong and strong stories continue to last. They live on because they teach us lessons. They motivate us to do better every day.”
If you have questions about suicide or in need to talk to someone, you can anonymously contact the free number 1813 or go to suicide1813.be