Shepard and Penn State: 12 years later, lessons yet to be learned

By Jennifer Pencek

October marks the 12th anniversary of the kidnapping, beating and murder of gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard.

As New York City’s Tectonic Theater Project marks the anniversary with Eisenhower Auditorium presentations of “The Laramie Project” and “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, An Epilogue” (Oct. 6 and Oct. 7, respectively), universities such as Penn State and communities across the country are left with the question, “Have things really changed?” Both plays are at 7:30 p.m. in Eisenhower Auditorium on Penn State's University Park campus.

Tickets for one play are $32 for an adult, $15 for a University Park student, and $26 for a person 18 and younger. Tickets for both plays are $50 for an adult, $20 for a University Park student, and $40 for a person 18 and younger.

“Some parents call me and say, ‘Can you guarantee my child will be safe going here?’ ” said Allison Subasic, director of Penn State’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Allies Student Resource Center. “I try to be honest. Penn State is far above many other schools with policies and procedures. In general, the area is a pretty safe place, but homophobia still exists in our society.”

Penn State’s Sue Rankin, an associate professor of college student affairs and higher education and a research associate at the Center for the Study of Higher Education, directed a national campus climate survey for those identifying themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender [LGBT].

“In (Rankin’s) research for this and overall campus climate for various groups of difference, she has found that [bias] incidents happen within cohorts -- faculty to faculty, student to student, etc.,” Subasic said.

Yet the public rarely hears about bias incidents, Subasic said. Hate crimes, also known as bias-motivated crimes, occur when a perpetrator targets a victim because of his or her perceived membership in a certain social group, usually defined by race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, class, ethnicity, nationality, age, gender or gender identity.

“LGBT people are victims of hate crimes on a regular basis,” Subasic said. “Many of the cases that garner the most attention are the ones the general public feels they can relate to -- the boy next door, etc. -- typically white males. Some of the most egregious cases are against people of color and transgender individuals. In general, the more society thinks a group is expendable, the more we do not care if something happens to them.”

While hurdles still exist in overcoming the battle against hate crimes and homophobia, marked successes have occurred. In October 2009, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which makes it a federal hate crime to assault people based on sexual orientation, gender or gender identity.

The new measure -- named after Shepard and James Byrd Jr., an African American who was chained to a pickup truck and dragged to his death in Texas in 1998 -- expands the scope of a 1968 law that applies to people attacked because of their race, religion or national origin.

“Our view is every American has a right to live freely in this country without feeling like they’re being attacked for who they are,” said Matt Nosanchuk, senior counsel to the assistant U.S. attorney general. “We’re doing a lot of outreach on the act. We want to foster an ongoing dialogue between community members and law enforcement because they will be the first responders. We want to reassure people it is in their best interests to come forward and report crimes.”

Nosanchuk travels throughout the country educating local law enforcement and community members on how the act can best be used. He also encourages the use of state and local laws to prosecute cases.

While progress has been made on the federal level passing hate crime legislation, some states -- Pennsylvania and Wyoming among them -- have no hate crime legislation in place that explicitly protects sexual orientation or gender identity.

“You see promising signs, but it’s taken 10 years for hate crime legislation at the federal level,” said Matt Rupert, chair of Penn State’s Commission on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Equity. “It’s something the LGBT community sees as common sense in terms of policy. We want the same rights and protections as spelled out by the law. It falls back on the 14th Amendment -- equal protection under the law.”

The commission, along with other groups and organizers, continue to work on educating people about equality issues and improving the climate for diversity by addressing issues affecting the welfare of the LGBT community. But it isn’t always easy to keep the momentum going.

“It’s a fortuitous thing,” Rupert said. “You can do as much as you can to drive discussions, but it’s imperative people have that energy and time. Lot of times people are pulled in different directions. But having lots of events is great and maintains awareness. It depends on who’s sitting at the table and interested in following up.”

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Pencek is the associate editor at the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State. Additional information and links about LGBT History Month events at Penn State and resources for LGBT students, faculty and staff are listed here.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010