Matthew Shepard was buried in an afternoon snowstorm in Casper, Wyoming, Oct 16 but his troubling legacy will long linger with us.
Though there may have been other factors involved, the University of Wyoming student was brutally murdered largely because he was a homosexual.
Inhumanity to minorities with whom people do not agree is not new. It sweeps across differences of religion, race, age, gender, and even political belief. The lessons of the past have been badly learned. Despite the horrors of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism has not been expunged. Despite the lynchings of blacks that disgusted civilized men during the civil rights campaign of the 1960s, only a few months ago a black man was dragged to pieces behind a truck driven by whites in Texas. Despite a Serbian campaign of rape and murder against Muslims that finally brought the world to act in Bosnia, thousands of minority Albanians face a similar fate today in Kosovo.
Mr. Shepard was also tortured and ultimately died because he was different from the majority of the community in which he lived. But in his case, the difference was his declared homosexuality. That is a lifestyle that many Americans do not endorse. But in large numbers they prayed for him as he lay for five days in intensive care. Their compassion poured forth in vigils and prayer-meetings across the country. They swamped his hospital with more than 6,000 electronic messages of condolence. And, when he died, in their millions they deplored his unspeakable murder, an act that should befall no human being.
His ordeal has stimulated new discussion about the ugly problem of hate crimes and how to deal with them. At a rally on the steps of the US Capitol, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, joined by prominent declared homosexuals such as Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts and actress Ellen DeGeneres, urged immediate passage of a federal anti-hate crimes bill. President Clinton endorses this.
Individual states have addressed this problem, but in diverse ways. Some have resisted anti-hate crime legislation. Some have enacted such laws but without identifying specific groups of victims. Some have enacted laws without specifically identifying crimes against homosexuals, and some have passed laws specifically identifying crimes related to sexual orientation.
Those who oppose such laws argue that they may boost morale but in fact do little to advance the ultimate goal: a more tolerant society. They reason that all victims of violent crimes deserve compassion and protection, none more than any other. The law includes sufficient categories of felonies to weigh the seriousness of offenses and to mete out appropriate punishment. Some homosexuals, like Bill Dobbs, a spokesman for the gay group QueerWatch, support this position, arguing that their elevation to special status in hate-crime legislation will prompt resentment against them.
This debate will take some time to play out, but the gay and lesbian community leaders clearly see the murder of Shepard as an opportunity to advance their cause and spotlight their agenda. The Washington Post quoted some as seeing Shepard as a martyr, and his death a pivotal point in the struggle to pass protective legislation for homosexuals.
One official of the American Civil Liberties Union says the gay-rights movement "is the civil-rights battle of the '90's." It is a battle with distinct lines of demarcation.
As Shepard's murder proves, there is an element of thuggery abroad prepared to act violently against the gay and lesbian minorities. Polls indicate animosity toward homosexuality in schools that leads to threats and sometimes injury. This is clearly unacceptable and must be stemmed.
The outpouring of public compassion for Shepard indicates sharp repugnance toward this violent gay-bashing. A number of churches have echoed this compassion, while making it clear that they consider the practice of homosexuality immoral.
If the gay and lesbian community indeed sees the tragedy of Shepard as a pivotal factor in redefining society's attitude toward homosexuality, it will seek to persuade the majority of Americans that they should move beyond toleration of the homosexual lifestyle to endorsement of it. That will pose a severe moral dilemma for American society.
* John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor of the Deseret News, in Salt Lake City.