The parents of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old gay college student that was murdered in a brutal homophobic attack in 1998, assailed Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday for what they called hypocrisy on LGBT rights during a Justice Department ceremony commemorating a hate-crimes law named after their son.
In a letter that was read Tuesday at a Justice Department ceremony to mark the 10th anniversary of the law named after Shepard and James Byrd Jr., a black man who was dragged to his death behind a pickup truck in Texas, Judy and Dennis Shepard took Barr and the Trump administration to task for taking the side of employers in the ongoing battle over whether they can legally discriminate against gay and transgender workers.
“We find it interesting and hypocritical that he would invite us to this event commemorating a hate crime law named after our son and Mr. Byrd, while, at the same time, asking the Supreme Court to allow the legalized firing of transgender employees,” the Shepards stated in the letter.
“Mr. Barr, you cannot have it both ways,” the letter went on. “If you believe that employers should have the right to terminate transgender employees, just because they are transgender, then you believe they are lesser than and not worthy of protection.”
So in the future, the Shepards wrote, “You need not invite us to future events at the Department of Justice that are billed as celebrating a law that protects these same individuals from hate crimes.”
“Either you believe in equality for all or you don’t,” they wrote. “We do not honor our son by kowtowing to hypocrisy.”
The Shepard’s letter was read out loud by Cynthia Deitle, program director for the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
NBC News notes that while Barr was not in attendance, Eric Dreiband, who heads the Justice Department’s civil rights division, was present.
When Deitle finished reading, the audience rose to its feet and applauded.
Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was beaten, driven to a remote field, tied to a fence by two men and left to die. The cyclist who found him reported that the unconscious young man’s face was covered with blood except where tears had washed the skin clean.
People gathered for vigils nationwide. The press flocked to Laramie to cover the story.
Matthew died six days later, on Oct. 12, 1998.
It soon became clear that Shepard had not been a random victim of a savage crime: He had been murdered because he was gay. One of his killers, Aaron McKinney, would describe Shepard as “a queer” and a “fag” in his confession. He would later state that Shepard “needed killing.”
Shepard was far from the first person to be targeted for violence because of his identity, nor would he be the last.
His abductors were later arrested and are now serving life sentences.
Shepard’s death sparked nationwide outrage and eventually led to the passage in 2009 of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law. It was the first federal law to criminalize violence against members of the LGBTQ community.
In their letter, the Shepards said years of discrimination against gay people in all facets of life paved the way for their son’s death.
“To this day, we are unable to understand why he was murdered for being gay,” they wrote. “Being gay is not a choice.”