Thousands of mourners gathered on the west steps of the nation’s Capitol Wednesday to remember the life and death of Matthew Shepard, and to demand that Congress pass stalled federal hate crimes legislation immediately.
“We need to send the strongest possible signal as a nation that these crimes will not be tolerated in the United States,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., one of several sponsors of the hate crimes bill in the Senate.
Senator Kennedy was joined by numerous members of Congress including House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), and Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla).
Actors Ellen DeGeneres, Anne Heche, Dan Butler, and Kristin Johnston were also in attendance. “I am so pissed off. I can’t stop crying,” said DeGeneres to the crowd. The performer is most famous for her lead character role in the ABC sitcom “Ellen,” canceled last year after DeGeneres’ character came out as a lesbian. “This is what I was trying to stop,” explained DeGeneres.
Twenty-one-year-old University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard died on Monday, five days after being tied to a fence, beaten severely, and left in near-freezing temperatures. It is believed that Shepard was beaten because he was gay.
Congressman Barney Frank, D-Mass., who is openly gay, urged the crowd to turn their outrage into action by educating themselves about their political candidates and then voting only for those candidates who support gay and lesbian rights. “We can protect ourselves with our vote in November,” he said.
Attorney General Janet Reno met with representatives of over a dozen gay and lesbian groups on Wednesday. Reno renewed her call for Congress to pass the hate crimes bill and ordered U.S. attorneys throughout the country to work together with state and local authorities to form hate-crime working groups.