More than two hundred years ago, the United States was founded on the principles of freedom for all and a pursuit of happiness that would be unimpeded by anything – no law would keep Americans from pursuing that which fulfilled them. Sometimes, though, Americans need laws to keep their journey to that elusive happiness as steady as possible.
Sometimes they need to be protected from things in life that seek to spread fear and hate and make people too afraid to even try and achieve the principles of that declaration given to all Americans, past, present and future.
People like Matthew Shepard needed those protections under the law.
Eleven years ago, Shepard, a young, openly gay man from Wyoming, was kidnapped, beaten severely, pistol whipped and tied to a fence post where he was left for dead in the cold of a Wyoming night.
He wasn’t found until more than 10 hours later, when a cyclist noticed what she thought was a scarecrow tied to the fence.
Later, it would be reported that Shepard’s face was so blugeoned that he was unrecognizable – the only clean parts of his face were two streaks running down his cheeks, where his tears had washed the blood away.
He died several days later as a result of the injuries sustained during the beating. His skull was cracked in two different places.
Shepard’s attackers were convicted and charged with murder, but this crime could not be considered a hate crime because sexual orientation wasn’t a part of the list of minorities protected within hate crimes laws.
Sadly, Shepard’s story is not an isolated case.
There are the stories of Brandon Teena, a transgender man who was raped, shot and killed because the people he was friends with found out he was born a girl.
Lawrence King was 15 when he was shot and killed for giving another boy a valentine.
Fred Phelps, leader of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, protests funerals for soldiers claiming they died in vain protecting a “country of fags.”
These stories don’t even include the countless acts of hate that go unreported every day: LGBT people suffering onslaughts of hate speech, being called “dyke” and “fag” in unwarranted acts of intimidation.
These tactics are meant to shock LGBT back into the proverbial closets from which they came.
Sexual orientation has remained off the list of minorities protected under hate crimes laws until last week, when President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law.
It’s no secret that on the list of minorities that are discriminated against, LGBT people are among the most hated and controversial.
These people face incredible, and oftentimes seemingly insurrmountable obstacles in life just so they can be happy and pursue all the great things that still remain intact within the “American dream.”
They shouldn’t have to worry about being beaten or killed simply because of who they are, and then not being able to prosecute their attackers’ motivations if a hate crime is committed against them.
For too long, LGBT people have had to silence themselves when someone committed an act of hate against them.
No longer is this the case, and quite frankly, it’s about time.
It’s about time that LGBT people made real progress in their fight for full equality under the law, and it’s about time that this fight acknowledges that hate can be inflicted upon LGBT people, just as it can be thrown at racial, ethnic and religious minorities.
It’s about time that those who seek to frighten LGBT people into submission are reminded that they are the actual minority in this dynamic, and that their hate is not as powerful as the collective voice of the American LGBT community that has fought for the passage of this legislation for years.
It’s about time that people became aware of the intense, hate-filled violence that surrounds them and is committed against people in their country, their communities and on their streets.
Those people have no excuse now to ignore the injustices hate creates.
And it’s about time that we have a president who is unafraid to stand in the face of hate, and change the way an entire minority is viewed: from scared and controlled to everyday Americans pursuing their own version of happiness.
It’s not a perfect country we live in, and it’s never going to be void of hate. But by remembering the stories of those injured or killed by hate, like Matthew Shepard, and by acknowledging sexual orientation as a minority susceptible to becoming the victim of hate crimes, this country is gaining ground on its journey to the acceptance of all individuals as equals under the law.
It’s definitely about time.