It's a story that's still hard to tell. Shortly after midnight on Oct. 7, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, was tied to a split-rail fence, savagely beaten and left to die in the cold of night. He was found almost 18 hours later by a cyclist, who initially mistook him for a scarecrow. He died six days later.
I remember first hearing the news reports back when I was still closeted, and thinking about how horrible it was, and also realizing--as so many other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans did--that the same thing could happen to me. Matt's murder sent the message to LGBT Americans that we won't be tolerated, leaving people all over the country feeling vulnerable, unsafe and afraid.
But something else happened too. I also remember the news stories that came out, and how powerful they were because they talked about his family and showed a community rallying together. And it wasn't just a few articles in the local papers and a passing mention in The New York Times. Matt's story, Matt's murder, Matt's family, Matt's community - they were in the national spotlight, making hate crimes against LGBT people real for the first time to many Americans.
It's horrible that it took such tragic circumstances to have such an unprecedented conversation in the media about the LGBT community. And it's even more disheartening that, in the 10 years since Matt's murder, we've continued to see far too many brutal hate crimes against LGBT people. None of these violent crimes have garnered the same type of comprehensive, multilayered coverage that could - and should - have kept our nation's attention focused on this pervasive problem.
And it's a serious problem. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), reported incidents of anti-LGBT violence increased by 24 percent from 2006 to 2007. Many states still don't have inclusive hate crimes laws on the books, and LGBT people still aren't included in existing federal hate crimes law.
In the meantime, many LGBT people have been harassed, bullied or killed. Gwen Araujo, Sakia Gunn, FC Martinez, Pfc. Barry Winchell, Rita Hester, Scotty Joe Weaver, Eddie Garzon, Billy Jack Gaither, Angie Zapata, Sanesha Stewart and Lawrence King are just a few of them. In some cases, media outlets picked up the stories at the urging of the families or the local LGBT community, but too few of them had a substantial impact on the national conversation.
Of these stories, one in particular stands out for me, and feels especially resonant right now. My 30th birthday is coming up, and two years ago at around this time, Michael Sandy was killed right before he turned 30, targeted for being young, black and gay. In my role at GLAAD, I worked with a coalition of groups to bring visibility to Michael's death, but it hit close to home and reminded me of why it's so important to work for cultural change.
Oftentimes we forget that many people are simply trying to find ways to live their everyday lives and at the same time be safe in their communities. We still have a long way to go before we've passed all of the necessary and important laws to include LGBT people in existing hate crimes protections, and many Americans don't realize that it's still a serious problem in communities all over the country.
Since Matt's death, though more people have been attacked or killed, media outlets have not responded with the kind of multilayered coverage - political, legal, cultural and personal - that makes these issues real, urgent and immediate. This week, I'll be celebrating a milestone birthday, something Matt and Michael won't get to do. And that's why it's so vital that our communities stand together against hate violence, and that both LGBT people and our allies call the community and the media to action.
For more information on the remembrance of Matthew Shepard's murder, go to www.glaadblog.org.