The lessons from Shepard’s murder go beyond new laws

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It was 20 years ago that two men savagely beat Matthew Shepard and left the 21-year-old college student for dead on a fence outside of Laramie, reportedly doing so because he was gay.

His murder rocked this state and drew the nation’s attention in a way that few other events here ever have.

In recent weeks, media outlets across the state and country have written dozens of stories examining what Shepard’s killing meant and means for Wyoming and America.

The interest in his death is obvious: It’s truly horrifying to think that someone could be a target for violence because of their sexual orientation, or, for that matter, their race, gender or nationality. No one should have to live with the fear that they might be attacked just because of who they are.

While some continue to question whether Matthew Shepard’s killers acted out of hatred for his sexuality or with other motives, the fact is that his death generated important discussions about how LGBT people are treated in Wyoming.

The 1998 murder is often brought up in debates over hate crimes legislation or nondiscrimination ordinances, but we think that misses some of the more important lessons we should be reflecting upon 20 years later.

The kind of hatred that drives a person to attack a fellow human for being different is not something that’s cured with a new law. A hate crime is a symptom of a mind that’s already become poisoned, likely years before any actual crime takes place.

And while it’s relatively easy to hold someone accountable for a murder, it’s impossible to investigate and prosecute every hateful act, which may be as brief as a passing remark in a high school hallway.

In recent years, school officials across the country have rightly recognized the importance of taking action against bullying, which tends to disproportionately target LGBT students; in some states, prosecutors have sought to hold bullies accountable after the victims of their harassment committed suicide. But even then, our legal systems fall short of addressing the issue. For every person who takes their own life because of hateful remarks, how many others live out the rest of their lives with painful emotional scars?

In short, bigotry is best combated not on the floors of the state Legislature or Congress with bills and resolutions, but in our own homes, businesses and schools, with acts of grace and kindness.

Laws that aim to create special new protections for certain groups of people miss the ultimate goal of equal protection, where no one has to live in fear of being singled out and targeted. And the real measuring stick is not whether we’re following all the laws, but whether we’re treating our neighbors — be they gay, straight or otherwise — as we would have ourselves treated.

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