Dennis Shepard, Father of Murdered Gay Son, Says Wyoming Needs a Hate Crimes Law
Wyoming wants respect and economic diversity, but that won’t happen until the state enacts a hate crimes law, the father of the slain University of Wyoming gay student Matthew Shepard said Friday.
Dennis Shepard told the Wyoming Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights at a hearing at Casper College that Wyoming remains one of five states without a hate crimes law despite the murder of his son in 1998 and the state’s motto as the “Equality State.”
Setting aside the human aspect of the violence and the immorality of treating people as the "other," Shepard said there’s an economic reason for the need for a hate crimes law.
The state faces a severe loss of revenues from the declines in the classic mineral extraction industries, said Shepard, who worked for 18 years for Saudi Aramco.
Wyoming wants to diversify economically by attracting new technologies and industries, he added.
But that won’t happen for two reasons, he said.
First, Wyoming suffers from a brain drain of young people who don’t want to live where they or their friends or families do not have the same legal protections as other residents.
Second, companies want to hire the best, he said. They won’t move here if they’re concerned their employees may be targeted for their race, gender and sexual orientation.
When he tells people he's from Wyoming, he doesn't hear responses about Yellowstone or the state's beauty, but rather "that's the hate state."
State leadership needs to foster that respect through hate crimes legislation, Shepard said. “I’m selfish, I love Wyoming, I want to stay here."
Several months after his son was murdered, the Legislature in 1999 had the opportunity to take the lead nationally by passing a hate crimes law, but failed. The Legislature has failed ever since. Even the few states that don’t have hate crimes law — Arkansas, South Carolina and Georgia — have been trying.
On the federal level, President Barack Obama in 2009 signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act that expanded the legal protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Shepard said.
But the U.S. Department of Justice in recent years has virtually halted training law enforcement about hate crimes, and reporting hate crimes is sketchy at best, he said.
Passing a hate crimes law in Wyoming would send a countervailing message to the rise of hate crimes in recent years and would encourage more reporting, Shepard said.
People, he added, don’t report hate crimes for five reasons:
- Fear of losing a job. In Wyoming, an employer can fire someone if they are gay or are married to someone who is gay.
- Fear of being revictimized, similar to what happens in rape cases.
- Fear of being arrested and or deported if U.S. citizenship status is questioned.
- Fear of law enforcement, citing what he saw of the justice system in Saudi Arabia.
- The doubt that local law enforcement would support someone who reports.
Scott Levin, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, further defined the nature of hate crimes.
“This is a unique kind of harm,” Levin said.
The perpetrator of a hate crime generally doesn’t target a specific person but rather targets them by affiliations or by characteristics over which they have no control: race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and so forth, Levin said.
For example, an anti-semite opened fire and killed 11 people and injured seven at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa., a year ago, he said.
The suspect didn’t target anyone specifically, Levin said. “It wasn’t for a specific animosity, but for who they were are.”
He targeted them for being Jews and for their support of Muslims and immigrants, he said.
’It was a message sent to the entire community.”