It’s been more than a decade since the federal government passed legislation bearing the name of slain Wyoming son Matthew Shepard. How much longer must we wait for the Equality State to enact its own hate crime law?
Can shame or, at least, economics finally spur state lawmakers to action?
Most states that have passed comprehensive hate crime laws did so only after a member of a vulnerable population was seriously injured or killed just because of who they are, according to Cynthia Deitle. Deitle was the chief of the FBI’s Civil Rights Unit before joining the Matthew Shepard Foundation as its director of civil rights reform.
The Georgia Legislature is the most recent example, approving a hate crimes bill in 2020 following the tragic shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery. State lawmakers could no longer ignore the pleas of the African-American community and a broad-based coalition of business and nonprofit organizations to outlaw bias-motivated violence, Deitle said.
When Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered in Laramie — tied to a fence by two local men, beaten and left for dead — it became one of the most high-profile crimes of the day. News that he was targeted because he was gay spread throughout the world and galvanized the LGBTQ community and allies to call for hate crime laws.
The conservative lawmakers in charge of the Wyoming Legislature had rejected bias crimes bills since the early 1990s, and Shepard’s murder didn’t move the needle an inch.
“The Equality State showed the country and the world that despite their moniker, the Legislature did not champion equality or equal rights, which allowed hate to flourish unchecked,” Deitle said.
In 2009, Congress passed a federal hate crime law that bears the names of Shepard and James Byrd Jr., an African-American man who was killed by three white supremacists in Jasper, Texas, in 1998. Byrd was dragged behind a truck for three miles.
Wyoming’s Republican congressional delegation — Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi and Rep. Cynthia Lummis — all voted against the act. Enzi is now retired, and Lummis is his successor.
Wyoming joins Arkansas and South Carolina as the three states that still lack statutes enhancing penalties for hate-motivated crimes. Wyoming may prove to be the last holdout, Deitle said.
“Does Wyoming want to be the only state that allows targeted violence against all their residents to flourish without repercussions?” Deitle asked. “I always thought that Wyomingites cherished their freedoms to worship how they want and love who they want.”
In addition to the moral obligation that local, state and federal governmental officials have to prevent identity-motivated crime, there is also an economic factor to consider.
“To me it’s such a no-brainer. What corporation is going to want to come here if they feel unsafe in the state?” said Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother. “Even if the corporation protects its employees, the state not passing those kind of protections just sends this message that ‘we don’t want you here.’”
Decades of research have shown that diversity sparks innovation, creativity and overall success in business environments, Deitle said.
“Business leaders want to recruit a diverse workforce whose families will thrive in communities that are protected, not targeted,” she said. “Wyoming is facing a crushing budget crisis which can be ameliorated by inviting new businesses to a more welcoming state.”
How widespread are hate crimes in Wyoming? Unfortunately, because law enforcement agencies in the state for many years did not report their hate crime data to the FBI — which is not mandatory under federal law — we don’t know how severe the threat of bias-motivated crime is in Wyoming.
But we know it exists. As WyoFile reported in October, an LGBTQ Wapiti couple reported to local law enforcement that a group of neighbors accosted them at their home and told them they needed to leave because “their kind” wasn’t welcome in the area.
Only four crimes where hatred of the victim’s identity was listed as a major factor were counted in Wyoming in 2019. James Simmons, former head of the Casper NAACP chapter, said the lack of a bias crimes law means police and prosecutors usually categorize them as assaults and “suspicious behavior.”
Hate crimes are “message crimes.” When a crime is committed against a person due to race, national origin, religion, sexual orientation or gender, entire communities are terrorized.
“When Matt was killed, the LGBTQ+ community saw targets on their backs and cowered in fear that they would be next,” Deitle said. “Wyoming turned their backs on them and all those who are ‘others.’”
The Wyoming Republican Party’s central committee isn’t content just to try to keep the state from enacting a hate crimes law. Before last year’s legislative session, it gave a list of its top priorities for GOP lawmakers. One was to stop passage of any bill that would provide equal-rights protections to LGBTQ citizens.
“Because [the Legislature] took a hard right this election I’m not sure we have a chance in this session to pass a hate crimes bill, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed,” Shepard said. “We’re hoping that with some corporate [lobbying] and some buy-in from businesses that we can actually get it accomplished.”
Shepard said she and her husband Dennis will continue to work behind the scenes to promote such legislation, but not out front.
“We made a decision years ago that we would never become personally involved in legislative issues in this regard,” she said. “We know all the haters would make it all about Matt. … There are just too many people who are still angry that what happened to Matt has created this narrative that Wyoming is a hate state.
“They could have changed it,” Shepard added. “They could have set the narrative themselves, but they chose not to.”
She’s absolutely right about the state. Laramie, the site of Matt Shepard’s murder, has taken some positive action. It now has an LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinance.
“The way I explain it to people who ask what the situation is now, if you went to Laramie looking for evidence that things have improved in terms of acceptance and understanding, you’d find it,” said Jason Marsden, former executive vice president of the Matthew Shepard Foundation. “The University of Wyoming has a robust anti-discrimination policy.
“But if you went to Laramie to find evidence that nothing has changed, you’d find that too,” he said.
Deitle said Arkansas and South Carolina are both poised to pass hate crime laws in 2021. We’ll soon see if Wyoming legislators feel any sense of shame in governing the only state without such a law on the books.
Like Shepard, I too have my fingers crossed. But based on the Legislature’s blatant failure to act during the past three decades, I’m not holding my breath.