Hate Crimes

Matthew Shepard was a 21-year-old openly gay college student who was targeted for his sexual orientation and was abducted, beaten and tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyoming, on Oct. 6, 1998. He died from his injuries six days later. Since then, his parents Judy and Dennis Shepard have worked tirelessly, alongside the Human Rights Campaign, to build a world where LGBTQ+ people are safe and everyone speaks out to confront bigotry and hate.

On June 7, 1998, four months before Matthew Shepard was killed, James Byrd, Jr., a Black man in Jasper, Texas, was offered a ride home from three white men. The driver was someone he knew and trusted, so he accepted the ride.

The three men instead abducted him, beat him, tied him up and dragged him from the back of the vehicle for three miles, ultimately killing him in a heinous act of hate violence.

HRC and countless other groups and individuals worked for years to get justice for their murders with federal hate crimes policies and legislation.

  • 1989: HRC started our work in passing comprehensive hate crimes protections. The Hate Crimes Statistics Act is reintroduced in the U.S. House would require the Department of Justice to collect and publish data about crimes motivated by hatred including sexual orientation.
  • 1993: The Hate Crimes Sentencing Enhancement Act is amended to the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 to allow judges to impose harsher penalties for hate crimes, including hate crimes based on sexual orientation that occur in national parks and other federal properties.
  • 1993 President Clinton devotes his weekly radio address to hate crimes, specifically citing bias crimes against LGBTQ+ people. Soon after, HRC participated in a White House hate crimes summit where we urged the White House to focus on how law enforcement officials are trained to investigate and prosecute bias crimes.

Before the summit concludes, Clinton unveils a package of initiatives that includes expanding federal hate crimes laws to encompass crimes aimed at people because they are gay or disabled, or because of their sex.

  • 1999 Following Matthew’s murder, HRC pushes a nationwide public service announcement featuring Judy and Dennis Shepard aimed at curbing anti-LGBTQ+ violence and promoting a greater understanding of LGBTQ+ issues.
  • 2000: 45,000 people gather at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., for HRC's Equality Rocks concert. The most powerful moment happens with an onstage arrival of Dennis and Judy Shepard. Louvon Harris and Darrell Varrett, the sister and nephew of James Byrd Jr. They were joined by Chuck and Eleanor Kadish, parents of Ben Kadish, a young boy seriously injured when a man carried out a violent rampage of a Jewish day school in Los Angeles; and Ismael and Deena Illeto, the brother and sister-in-law of Joseph Illeto, a Filipino-American postal worker who died during that rampage.
  • 2007: Judy Shepard had spoken to more than 1 million young people about the damaging effects of hate and the importance of embracing diversity.

Victory in the Year of Change

Finally, in 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law. This law gives the Justice Department the power to investigate and prosecute bias-motivated violence where the perpetrator has selected the victim because of the person's actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

HRC was proud to join the Shepard and Byrd families at the signing and continue to honor their memories to this day.