Huffpost Politics

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Brian Levin, J.D. Headshot

As Hate Bill Passes, One Mother's Work (and Ours) Continues

Posted: Updated:

The House of Representatives approved of federal legislation, first introduced by Ted Kennedy, that would close loopholes in existing federal hate crime law and expand coverage to also include crimes
committed because of the actual or perceived sexual orientation,
gender, gender identity, and disability of another. By a vote of 281-146 the
House of Representatives voted in favor of a Department of  Defense funding authorization bill that
included a conference report on the “Matthew Shepard and James Byrd  Hate Crime Prevention Act.”  It now goes on to the Senate for final

While I testified before Congress and state legislatures
about research establishing the unique violence and severity of hate crime and
wrote Supreme Court briefs on their constitutionality (which was unimously
approved), I will do something different here. My direction for this column was
prompted by my five year old son’s interruption of my writing with a sudden and unsolicited good morning hug before work.

The Act’s title referred to two horrific 1998 homicides that
touched a nerve in the nation’s psyche. One was the horrible dragging death
murder of James Byrd by Texas white supremacists. The other, Matthew Shepard was
a gentle boyishly handsome 21 year old , Wyoming college student. Shepard was
attacked by homophobic thugs, pretending to be gay, who sought him out at a
local bar. After carjacking, beating and robbing him, the killers tied the
unconscious student’s small frame to a wooden fencepost on a dark, desolate and
cold windswept  plain outside
of  Laramie. While Shepard was far
from the first youth to be beaten or killed because of sexual orientation, the
case transfixed a nation still split about its feelings towards gays and

For a variety of reasons Shepard’s death humanized
homophobic violence in a way other cases did not. First, the nation watched the
unfolding drama over the course of days as his grief stricken parents rushed
back to the Rockies from halfway around the globe. Next, Matthew’s extended
fight for life gave the newspaper front pages and the new dynamic of three
vying cable news networks more lengthy opportunities to examine both homophobic
violence and its effect on a truly middle American family. His parents, despite
their grief, were poised, articulate and downright normal looking. Television
often fails to capture context, but here the medium broadcast unfiltered
heartbreak of the most compelling type. 
The media spotlight does not confer goodness, but sometimes good people
get it and use the opportunity to make the world better.

If his middle American parents who knew and loved Mathew
best, accepted and loved him despite his sexual orientation or his struggles
with entering young adulthood, then maybe straight America was dead wrong. His
death caused a subtle, but unmistakable conversation about our feelings toward
our gay and lesbian relatives, friends, neighbors and coworkers. Matthew’s
murder made a stark falsehood evident: it wasn’t gays who were threatening
middle American families, but rather violent homophobia. Since the
heartbreaking death of her child, Judy Shepard has probably been the most
important public advocate for the legislation which bears her son’s name. As a
parent I can not even fathom the courage she has shown after such a devastating
loss, but I love her for it.

Whether one likes it or not gays, lesbians, bisexuals and
others have contributed remarkably to the American mosaic whether it be in
science, the arts, commerce—and families. They are here not simply because some
lobbying groups or the media created them. All people of good will, no matter
where they fall on the political spectrum, have a moral obligation to first and
foremost decry the continuing hatred, violence and harassment that the gay
community faces. It is not giving up ground to say that difference or even disagreement
should never be a license for hate and heartbreak. Judy Shepard may have helped pass
an important law, but she did something even more worthwhile, she opened our
hearts. G-d bless you, Judy Shepard and thanks. As the eleventh anniversary of her
son’s tragic passing is marked this Monday, its time for all of us to continue the
work of this incredible mom and humanitarian.