The comments made today by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) during the House of Representatives debate on the expansion of hate crimes legislation to include, among other things, sexual orientation and gender identity, suggests that a new strain of swine flu is sweeping the Republican Party---a morally porcine variant. Thus far, its symptoms include a Tourette-like impulse to horrify, and a predilection for politically expedient revisionism at whatever the moral cost.
Addressing the House, Rep. Foxx announced that the murder of Matthew Shepard, widely acknowledged to be the most famous gay bashing hate crime in American history, was in fact a "hoax," perpetrated by activists eager to pass "these bills."
Politico reports that according to a senior Democratic aide, Matthew Shepard's mother, Judy Shepard, was in the gallery watching when Rep. Foxx said, "I also would like to point out that there was a bill -- the hate crimes bill that's called the Matthew Shepard bill is named after a very unfortunate incident that happened where a young man was killed, but we know that that young man was killed in the commitment of a robbery. It wasn't because he was gay. This -- the bill was named for him, hate crimes bill was named for him, but it's really a hoax that -- that continues to be used as an excuse for passing these bills."
According to reports in the New York Times, Matthew Shepard was lured from a bar in the early hours of October 7th 1998 on the pretext of a seduction, kidnapped, tortured, burned, beaten, then tied to a fence for 18 hours in near-freezing temperatures till a passing cyclist eventually spotted him. He died a lingering death a few days later on October 12th. His killers, Aaron J. McKinney and Russell A. Henderson, admitted that they targeted Shepard because was gay. At trial, McKinney's attempt to use the "homosexual panic" defense (essentially that Shepard's homosexuality so distressed and enraged his murderers that they had no choice but to kill him) was thrown out by the judge.
The two were sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.
That Rep. Foxx (herself a mother and grandmother who, according to her gushing MySpace profile, "enjoy[s] gardening, attending church and spending high quality time with their two grandchildren") would, in 2009, refer to Matthew Shepard's murder as an "unfortunate incident" in the presence of his mother, or use this particular murder ---this internationally known and recognized murder --- as her personal fistful of offal flung at Matthew Shepard's memory during the House hate crimes debate, seems not only obscene, but also demonstrates the increasing desperation of the ultra-conservative wing of the GOP as their hold on what they think of as the moral high ground in America crumbles to dust.
It's as though Rep. Foxx and her colleagues don't understand that in the age of the Internet and mass media, people don't "forget" the facts of cases like the Shepard murder, and seems unaware that if she's is going to stand up in the House of Representatives and proclaim right-wing lunatic-fringe urban legends to be facts --- for instance calling Shepard's murder "a hoax" --- it will only serve to make her and her party look malevolent, clueless, and inbred. It suggests the scraping of the very bottom of a moral slop bucket, politically and personally. It suggests the transient nature of "family values," and that perhaps dragging Matthew Shepard's memory through the mud in front of his mother was somehow worth it in order to make sure that "immoral" people like Shepard and his kind don't receive posthumous "special rights" due to their "lifestyle choices."
And judging by the virulent opposition among the religious right to this expansion of the definition of a hate crime, it suggests, among other things, a by now sickeningly familiar potential for smug cruelty masquerading as Christian morality.
It hardly seems necessary to add that the Matthew Shepard murder and its outcome was a shot heard round the world, one which sparked debate and dialogue in several countries including the United States on the necessity of not only acknowledging, but also punishing, hate crimes.
The Matthew Shepard Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives today with a vote of 247 in favor to 175 against, ushering in yet another sign of the changing face of American society, one that suggests hope for an inclusive future.
I'd like to imagine the feelings of Judy Shepard as the hate crimes bill named after her murdered son passed the House in the presence of the woman whose contribution to the passage of that bill was to attempt to besmirch his memory with ugly distortions.
But judging by Congresswoman Foxx's preposterous comments earlier in the day, I doubt she herself felt much besides a peevish sense that her side lost one more battle in what they like to call "the culture war." I rather suspect that calling bigotry and hate by their proper names is still news in Mrs. Foxx's private, personal, dark corner of North Carolina, where it's clearly still a cold October night in Laramie in 1998.