Hate in Wyoming and the rule of law Gay bashing: Matthew Shepard's murder is a reminder of need for strong statutes, enforcement.

October 17, 1998

THERE ARE bowed heads and sympathy over the death of Matthew Shepard, most of it genuine, some of it hypocritical.

The University of Wyoming student, who was gay, died Monday after a horrible beating. His skull was smashed, he suffered cuts about his head and face, he had been burned. He was found tied to a fence in temperatures in the low 30s.

Police have charged two young men, one who says Mr. Shepard flirted with him in a bar, and their girlfriends in connection with the crime; the two young women are accused of being accessories.

The law will eventually resolve the criminal details, but the specter of anti-homosexual activity continues to haunt us as a nation. When is a hate crime a hate crime? The police labeled the incident so, although the father of one of the suspects says his son only intended to rob Mr. Shepard.

The original charges were kidnapping, assault and robbery, despite the defendants' anti-gay statements when they were arrested. Wyoming has no hate crimes law, but the governor has invited legislation to make it the 41st state with such a law.

The incident reminds us of the necessity for strong anti-gay bashing laws and their strenuous enforcement, as well as the need for leaders to avoid unwittingly giving comfort and encouragement to unstable elements that would engage in gay-bashing. The president has recommended expanding federal law to include gay-bashing.

The constant drumbeat of anti-homosexual campaigns such as that last summer by the Family Research Council, and its echoes by Rep. Dick Armey and Sen. Trent Lott, majority leaders in Congress, frequently end up as fuel for those elements.

Mr. Shepard's death is reminiscent of the incident in Texas earlier this year when a black man was tied to the back af a pickup truck by two whites and dragged to his death. It was horrendous, and hateful.

In Mr. Shepard's case, substitute hatred on the basis of sexual orientation for hatred because of race. The outcome was the same -- and unacceptable in a civilized society. We have to deal with that.

Pub Date: 10/17/98

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