At a candlelight vigil Wednesday night on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, thousands of people came together to mourn the loss and commemorate the legacy of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old University of Wyoming student beaten to death last week.
One friend remembered that Shepard once said he would be famous and planned to make a difference in the area of human rights. Now, as his tragic story unfolds, it appears the homosexual student may have achieved his goal too soon and paid for this fame with his life.
Shepard died in the hospital Monday in the presence of his family and friends after spending five days in critical condition. There, he clung briefly to life after surviving the Oct. 6 attack that left him tied to a fence on a backwoods road, enduring near-freezing temperatures, his skull bashed by the butt of a .357 Magnum.
In Laramie, Wyo., where Shepard grew up, and around the world, the attack has raised grave concerns about the insidious nature of hate crimes in the United States.
More than 20 legislators, including House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) and former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson (R) spoke at the vigil in support of homosexual rights and causes. They were joined by advocacy leaders from various groups and television stars such as Ellen DeGeneres and Kristen Johnston of “Third Rock from the Sun.”
“It just hit me why I am so devastated by it,” said DeGeneres, who came out two years ago on her television show, “Ellen.” “Because this is what I was trying to stop. This is exactly why I did what I did (by coming out).”
Nearly all of the speakers demanded the passage of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act before adjournment of the 105th congressional session this fall. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) called for more homosexual youth outreach programs in schools and more attention to the safety of these individuals.
According to the National Youth Advocacy Coalition, 66.7 percent of gay, lesbian and bisexual youth were threatened or injured with a weapon at school in the past year. Many speakers also implored right-wing organizations to discontinue new ad campaigns aimed at “converting” homosexuals.
“I think the sheer brutality of this case made it special,” said Jason Anthony, adviser of the GW Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Alliance, which brought more than 25 people to the vigil. “No matter who you are, you can’t help but feel horrified.”
LGBA and the International Socialist Organization will sponsor another vigil for GW students at 5:30 p.m. Thursday on the Marvin Center’s H Street terrace.