Here's something few people know: After Matthew Shepard was murdered, people from all over the country visited the fence where he had hung for 18 hours before being discovered. The fence quickly became a pilgrimage site for many people who came to pay their respects, to honor the Wyoming college student's memory, to mourn his fate; it became a monument to remembrance. Only a few months after the 1998 murder, the property's owner, upset by the vast number of visitors, removed the fence. This action didn't make the papers; no television network broadcast it. Just like that, the fence was dismantled, the site was erased.
In the past seven years, thousands of professional and amateur theater groups throughout the world have performed "The Laramie Project," the play I wrote with members of the Tectonic Theater Project about the aftermath of Shepard's killing. Whenever I visit these productions, people in the audience speak about a hate crime that was inflicted on them or someone close to them as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In 2005, the FBI reported that 1,017 people were victims of violent hate crimes because of their sexual orientation -- and these are only the reported crimes. Race inspires the most hate-crime attacks, followed by religion. Sexual orientation motivates the third-most hate-crime attacks. Transgender Americans also face particularly savage attacks that are often poorly investigated.
Given this reality, it is very disturbing that President Bush now threatens to veto the Matthew Shepard Act.
Now being considered by the U.S. Senate, the Matthew Shepard Act would broaden the standing federal hate-crimes law to provide greater support for local law enforcement and protect people who are victimized because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Federal hate-crimes law covers only violent crimes motivated by a victim's race, color, religion or national origin.
The Matthew Shepard Act would not end anti-gay violence, but it would enable the government to protect all citizens who are violently victimized because of who they are. This bill is a vital first step in preventing Americans from becoming future victims of hate-fueled violence.
This legislation should not be controversial. The House of Representatives passed HR1592 in May and the Senate is expected to do so soon. According to a May 2007 Gallup poll, 68 percent of those polled want federal hate crimes law to include sexual orientation. In addition, hundreds of religious organizations and law enforcement groups support the legislation. It is clear that the majority of Americans will no longer stand for anti-gay violence and the scars it leaves on its victims and their communities.
In light of this, it is particularly outrageous that President Bush appears to be capitulating to the small chorus of conservative and religious leaders urging a veto of the bill. These leaders, who seek to block the expansion of legal protections to Americans, claim that the bill will punish preachers for espousing antigay views. This is false. U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., a co-sponsor of the bill, takes issue with those who argue that the legislation would prevent religious leaders from preaching against homosexuality. "This act is about the prosecution of crime, not prohibition of speech," he said. "Unless they believe part of their religion is the practice of violence against others, they should not be affected by this bill."
The murder of Shepard captured the world's attention, but what about the other victims whose names don't make the news? What about the African American, Latino and transgender members of our gay, lesbian, bisexual transgender community and other minorities whose suffering won't be given the press coverage given Shepard, who was young, white, middle class and photogenic? These are the anonymous Matthew Shepards of our country.
"I believe the government's first duty is to defend its citizens, to defend them against the harms that come from hate," said Smith.
"The Matthew Shepard Act is a symbol that can become substance. I believe that by passing this legislation and changing current law, we can change hearts and minds, as well."
Will President Bush veto this bill and stand with those who preach intolerance and hatred?
The fence where Shepard hung for 18 hours has vanished, the memorial lost to us. Enacting the legislation that bears his name would not only honor his memory, but ensure that we don't forget what happened to him there.
MoisÃƒ©s Kaufman is an Emmy and Tony award nominee and artistic director of the Tectonic Theater Project. To read the White House recommendations, go to www.whitehouse.gov/ omb/legislative/sap /110-1/hr1592sap-h.pdf
© 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle