Richard Socarides, a White House Special Assistant to President Clinton in 1998, reflects on the 20th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death.
Matthew Shepard died 20 years ago today. If you were alive and old enough to watch the news back then, you probably remember it. A gay college student, he was kidnapped and brought to a remote field outside Laramie, Wyoming, where he was viciously beaten and left for dead in a gruesome anti-gay hate crime that drew widespread media attention and shocked the nation. Matthew survived in a coma for six days, while the nation stood vigil. But he never regained consciousness, and he died on October 12, 1998. He was 21 years old.
For many Americans, it was the first time they understood the kind of violence and hatred that gay people could be subjected to, and the danger gay people often faced simply for who they were. The cruelty and brutality of this particular crime were unusually shocking. But bigotry and anti-gay violence were not.
I had a unique vantage point on these events, and they have left an indelible mark on my experience as an openly gay man and as an American. At the time of Matthew’s death, I was a White House Special Assistant to President Bill Clinton. Among other things, I was his liaison to the gay and lesbian community (as we called it then) and responsible for shepherding a bill the president had proposed to expand federal hate crimes protection to include violence perpetrated against someone because of their sexual orientation. Under the law at the time, Matthew’s killing was not considered a federal hate crime. The president’s legislation would have changed that.
“The president has asked that you keep him apprised of Matthew Shepard‘s condition,” said Nancy Hernreich, Head of White House Oval Office Operations, in a phone call to me soon after the incident. When the president said he wanted to call Matthew’s parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, to offer his support, it was my job to track them down at the hospital in Laramie to ask them if they would take the call.
When I reached them, Dennis Shepard picked up the phone. He was upset and angry — so overcome with emotion that he could not speak to me, although he tried. I couldn’t imagine what it was like for Matthew’s parents to go through such a horrible thing, and so publicly. Matthew’s mom, Judy, took the receiver. She told me, through tears, that they appreciated the president’s concern and would be willing to talk to him. The president made the call. Afterward, he issued a statement of sympathy and prayer for Matthew‘s recovery. But his recovery was not to be.
After Matthew died, the president addressed the press outside the Oval Office. It seems like a simple thing today, but for the president to speak to the nation directly about the beating death of a gay person was a moving and important affirmation. We were still then at a point in our history when some people felt that gay people were immoral and didn’t deserve rights, or even that they deserved violence. (Some people may even still believe these things today.) His actions remind us that there was a time when the president of the United States led from a place of humanity, dignity, and compassion, and when empathy was celebrated as an American strength.
“Hate and prejudice are not American values,” President Clinton said. “I hope that in the grief of this moment for Matthew Shepard’s family, and in the shared outrage across America, Americans will once again search their hearts and do what they can to reduce their own fear and anxiety and anger at people who are different, and I hope that Congress will pass the hate crimes legislation.”
Despite our best efforts, the hate crimes bill never made it out of committee. But in the months and years that have followed, I’ve been so moved and impressed by how Dennis and Judy Shepard turned the tragedy of Matthew’s death into a teachable moment for the whole country, and how they have both become strong advocates for the rights of LGBT people, and human and civil rights generally. (If you’d like to honor their work and the memory of their son, you can visit the website of their foundation at MatthewShepard.org.)
As I look back now, I’m also proud of Bill Clinton in this moment. He often said that his job as president was to “deepen the meaning of freedom for all Americans, thus strengthening the bonds of our community.” That is a true measure of political leadership, and it was the mission he stood for 20 years ago today.
Congress finally passed his hate crimes bill, and President Obama signed it into law, on October 28, 2009, eleven years later. Dennis and Judy Shepard were at the signing ceremony. The law bears Matthew’s name.
Richard Socarides was a White House Special Assistant to President Clinton from 1997–99. He is now a corporate communications executive in New York City. This was originally posted on LinkedIn Pulse.