Screen shots of anti-gay responses received by KLB Research are
displayed below throughout this post.
On this day, in 1998, Matthew Shephard was brutally attacked - beaten and left for dead, hanging on a fence in the barren lands of Wyoming.
He died 5 days later, on October 12, 1998.
There was no such thing as an "anti-gay hate crime" in the United States when Matthew was killed, but the brutality of his death and the fact that it was motivated purely and simply because of his sexual identity, awoke in many a need for hate crime legislation.
How far have we come in the 15 years that have now passed without Matthew in this world? In some ways, the world is very different. Same-sex marriage is legal in many more nations, hate crime legislation is much more prevalent, gay-straight alliances exist in many high schools, and overall, attitudes towards sexual and gender diversity have improved.
Yet, in other ways, it’s still questionable how much we’ve improved. Today, many individual still believe that there is no such thing as a hate crime. Instead, they argue that all crime is equal. That mugging someone for money is no different than viciously killing someone because of who they are and/or whom they love.
Six weeks ago when I launched a campaign to raise funds for research on reducing prejudice towards same-sex couples I never imagined the responses that I would receive. I expected some people to question why I was raising funds for academic research for crowdfunding. I expected questions about peer review and whether or not I could support my claims that the research is valid, objective and well planned. I expected that friends and family would make donations and that some strangers might as well. I expected that some people would not relate to the topic of the research, that they might have difficulty in seeing the utility or purpose of trying to understand the physiological reactions that lie behind prejudiced behaviours and I even expected that some people would roll their eyes and say “not more gay research.”
My expectations were entirely wrong. Yes, many generous friends and family have donated and many more complete strangers have also done so - beyond my expectations. A few people have asked me questions about peer review or why I am crowdfunding instead of applying for a grant (there’s a long explanation, for now, just trust me that I have good reasons :). What I didn’t expect, and perhaps it was naive of me not to, was the onslaught of hate, and I really didn’t expect to be thrown into a debate about whether or not hate crimes actually exist.
To me, the existence of hate crimes is a no brainer. When a crime is motivated by nothing other than hate, it stands out as being particularly offensive and vile. The concept of a violent hate crime violates our (mostly false) sense of security in believing that we can somehow make decisions that will increase or decrease our risk of being a victim of violent crime. Hate crimes target features of people that are not open for debate or decisions. Victims of hate crimes are targeted simply because of WHO THEY ARE.
One of the main objections that I’ve heard over the last few weeks in opposition to hate crimes is that to prosecute a hate crime is akin to prosecuting a thought crime, and how can that be fair? This is one of those arguments that has an ounce of truth, yet somehow completely misses the point. One of the reasons that hate crimes are so very difficult to successfully prosecute is because the prosecution must prove that hate was the sole motivating factor (or at least one of the primary motivations), and to do so, they must somehow determine the “thoughts” of the perpetrator.
But hate crimes are far from being the only instance within our legal system in which we seek to understand the “thoughts” of a perpetrator. Premeditation often makes the difference between a first or second degree murder charge. Crimes of Passion are given different consideration than premeditated ones. We also charge people with conspiracy, often when no crime at all has been committed. In all of these instances, prosecutors must find evidence to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, some aspect of what the perpetrator was thinking - and hate crimes are no exception. The difference is that you do not see people arguing over whether or not determining if a crime was premeditated equates to prosecuting someone for their thoughts. For all other crimes, we accept that understanding the perpetrator's motives is an integral process of seeing justice served.
There is no witchcraft that suddenly comes into play when it is a hate crime that is being prosecuted. Prosecutors do not begin to rely on a sixth sense or the testimony of mind readers in order to prosecute a hate crime - they rely on the same kinds of evidence that are used in any other crime in which motive is established. Did witnesses hear the perpetrator using racial, ethnic, religious or anti-gay slurs during the attack? Did they leave the victim with such slurs written on their body? Did they have a history of sending hate mail to the victim or others? This is why hate crimes are difficult to prosecute, but the difficulty in prosecuting them doesn’t mean that hate crime legislation isn’t important or that hate crimes don’t happen. They do.
Hate crimes do exist. They do happen.
Same-sex couples in NYC have been the targets of a number of hate crimes over the last few months - including the murder of Marc Carson (see image to right). These crimes represent our collective failure on behalf of Matthew Shephard. We have had 15 years to learn from Matthew’s death - and while yes, we have done so, we have not done so well enough. Holding hands with the person you love should not make you the target of someone else’s hate, violence or rage. Kissing your partner goodbye at the airport should not invite stares of disgust and negative commentary from the peanut gallery. Being extra fabulous and not being afraid to show it is not a justification for being curb stomped.
The part that continuously haunts me and that has lead, in part, to my current line of research is the simple question of why? Why?
Why did they kill Matthew?
What was so upsetting to them that he needed to die? What continues to upset people when they see same-sex couples holding hands or sharing a kiss? Why did a gay couple holding hands in the middle of the afternoon get beaten up for no other reason than because they were holding hands? What happens in the precise moment that a prejudiced individual sees a same-sex couple holding hands? What reaction do they have inside of their minds and their bodies that puts them into such a state that they react with violence and hate? It is these questions that my research is trying to answer, in the hopes that having the answers to such questions will help us to reduce prejudice and to bring justice for people like Matthew, who needlessly died, simply for who they were.
To do Matthew justice, we need to eradicate hate crimes altogether - not just here in Canada, not just in the United States, but globally - everywhere. We must widen our gaze and see the issues of LGBTQ individuals living in Russia, Uganda, Nigeria and so many other places where it is not safe to be a sexual or gender minority - and we must see their issues as our issues. And when I say “we” and “our” I do not simply mean the LGBTQ communities of “The West” - I mean everyone. LGBTQ issues are HUMAN issues. Being free to love whomever you love is a HUMAN right, not a gay right, and not a straight right. Reducing prejudice towards LGBTQ individuals does not simply improve the lives of LGBTQ individuals, it improves the lives of everyone. Just as being hated does not feel good, it doesn’t feel good TO hate.
It took Matthew 5 days to die from his injuries.
My challenge to you, is to spend the next 5 days thinking about what you can do in your life to contribute to a world where it is safe for every couple to love each other, to hold hands, to simply be.
What can you do in 5 days of your life - 5 of the 5480 days (and counting) that Matthew and his family had ripped away from them 15 years ago?