Murder ignited activism, fears for gay students

Matthew Shepard’s death one year ago galvanized human rights activists across the country, but it had a special impact on gay college students, said Josh Meyer, Administrative Chair for GW Pride, a student group that advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.

“His murder raised awareness of the reality of hate crimes in both the gay and straight communities,” said the GW sophomore.

Shepard was killed last October in Laramie, Wyo., allegedly because he was gay. One man has pled guilty to the brutal attack, and the trial of a second man begins this week.

At the time, his death led to numerous memorials at colleges around the country. This week, as part of the one-year anniversary, activities include commemorative marches, vigils, speeches and awareness seminars in conjunction with National Coming Out Week.

GW Pride hosted several programs this week aimed at combating the issues that many believe lie at the heart of Shepard’s death: intolerance and fear. GW Pride’s activities included a film viewing, discussion and a speech by Donna Redwing, a leading political activist for gay causes, Wednesday night. The group also is spearheading a massive letter-writing campaign aimed at encouraging Congress to “support legislation that promotes understanding, safety, respect and equality for gay people.”

“Though the murder was extremely tragic, some good will come from it,” Meyer said. “It’s inspired so many people to take action to prevent this kind of violence from happening ever again.”

Sean Kosofsky, a recent college graduate who also works with the Queer Metro Collegiate Coalition, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students at Detroit-area universities, said the death of Shepard, a relatively affluent, gay, white man, hit close to home for many college students.

“It took a Matthew Shepard to make many college students believe that hate crimes can touch the lives of someone like them,” he said.

The energies of students nationwide with whom he has worked have been focused on the passage of hate crimes legislation and promoting tolerance on campus by organizing speakers and events, he said.

But while the effects of the murder have been motivating for some, they have sent shock waves of fear through others.

Bob Schoenberg, the director of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center at the University of Pennsylvania said as his school reflected on Shepard’s death, many students and administrators still felt unsafe.

“Many are still frightened that they may be the next to be victimized,” Schoenberg said. He said students also are encouraged by the support they have received.

“The influence of the gay community seems to be increasing,” he said.

Yet anti-violence activists continue to view the Shepard death as one of many terrifying reminders of why they “must continue to work harder than ever before to spread a message of tolerance throughout college communities and beyond,” Kosofsky said.

Jim Osborne, the adviser for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Alliance at the University of Wyoming, where Shepard attended, traveled around the country this year, speaking with administrators and students about how to prevent hate crimes. He said the University of Wyoming did “an incredible job in dealing with everything” in the days following the 21-year-old student’s death.

“There was nothing we could have done to prepare for this, but we were able to deal with it,” said Osborne, who was chairman of the organization last year before graduating.

He said while the school made some mistakes, it has done a lot of things right in coping with the tragedy. Osborne said the support from around the world has made him optimistic of the future.

“There’s been a lot of very positive social change or work toward positive social change,” he said.

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