DENVER – Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, today delivered the keynote remarks at the Matthew Shepard Foundation’s 20th Anniversary Commemorative Breakfast. Her prepared remarks follow below:
Thank you for your kind words and for your leadership of the amazing Matthew Shepard Foundation. It is a privilege to share the podium today with Nick Shores, whose courageous spirit and impactful advocacy is an inspiration to us all. And it is an honor to join so many distinguished leaders and community members dedicated to honoring Matthew’s legacy; to erasing hate; and to empowering communities through the bonds of mutual respect, tolerance, and understanding that bind us together.
Nearly 20 years ago, Matthew died from the most hateful and heinous of crimes. He was a young man filled with a vibrancy of life and a generosity of spirit. An avid traveler and peer counselor, he embraced differences and fought for equality. I remember hearing the news of his murder in 1998 and being absolutely shaken to my core.
Matthew and I were close in age, and my own sister was coming out as a lesbian around the same time. I was angry and broken, as were so many around the world, about Matthew’s death.
But faced with the unfathomable tragedy of Matthew’s murder, the Shepard family somehow found the strength to turn grief into action and inspired the world. You mobilized our country and our communities to stand against hate. You advocated for the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. As you recall well, the path to a White House signing ceremony with President Obama took thirteen long years. At The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, we are proud to have stood alongside Judy and Dennis in advocating for this critical legislation.
Along with our partners at the Anti-Defamation League, the Human Rights Campaign, the NAACP, Unidos US, the American Association of University Women, we led a broad coalition of civil rights, religious, education and law enforcement organizations that helped to secure passage of the law.
And then, recognizing that hate and prejudice cannot be legislated out of existence, you formed this outstanding organization. Thanks to the courage of Judy and Dennis, the Matthew Shepard Foundation serves as a living legacy to Matthew. It stands as a beacon of understanding, tolerance, and respect. You’re leading research to improve the accuracy of hate crimes data and shine light on the monumental problem of underreporting.
You’re partnering with government agencies to provide critical trainings to law enforcement agencies around the country. You’re doing the tough but vital work of improving relations between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. And you’re providing critical resources and support for LGBT youth.
Hate violence threatens entire communities, forcing people to live in fear because of who they are, whom they love, what they look like, or where they worship. It violates the most fundamental American values of dignity and decency. It tears at the fabric of who we are as a nation and who we aspire to be. The Shepard-Byrd Act is a vital part of defending these fundamental and foundational values.
It added new federal protections against crimes based on gender, disability, gender identity, or sexual orientation. And it removed unnecessary jurisdictional obstacles that interfered with the prosecution of race and religion-motivated violence. Preventing and prosecuting hate violence keeps us safe. And particularly in times like these, amidst an alarming uptick of hate crimes, communities need legal accountability.
When I served as the head of the Civil Rights Division in the Obama Administration, we worked day-in and day-out to enforce the Shepard-Byrd Act and vindicate the rights of vulnerable victims. The law gave the Justice Department much more robust and comprehensive enforcement powers to reach more cases and communities.
In Mississippi, California, Oregon, Kansas and Florida – we organized a series of regional trainings, helping local and federal law enforcement understand how to recognize, investigate, and prove hate crimes.
But we also know that prosecution and law enforcement training alone can’t erase hate and build respect. That’s because hate violence, of course, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. As President Obama said when he signed the Shepard-Byrd Act in 2009, “we sense where such cruelty begins: the moment we fail to see in another our common humanity – the very moment when we fail to recognize in a person the same fears and hopes, the same passions and imperfections, the same dreams that we all share.”
It starts with the more subtle forms of discrimination that threaten people and undermine their sense of personal dignity. Discrimination that tries to tell people how to live and where to go – discrimination that tries to make people feel inferior and less than. It can start with bullying in school. As the daughter of Indian immigrants and the wife of a Vietnamese refugee – as the mother of two young boys of color – I know firsthand how painful, harmful, and long-lasting discrimination can be. And it has been a cruel irony to watch the Civil Rights Division that I used to lead – an office that at its best serves as the conscience of this country – be used to undermine justice and impede equality.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it: we are now living in a deeply challenging time for the cause of justice, fairness, and inclusion. In 2015 and 2016, Donald Trump ran for president on a platform that legitimized hate across this nation. He provided a space for some of the voices and ugly views to be amplified. He verbally attacked people because of what they looked like and where they came from: from mocking people with disabilities, to ethnic slurs about federal judges and Mexicans and Muslims and beyond. And now, in the Oval Office, sits a President advancing an agenda that fuels discrimination giving rise to hate.
It’s important to call the Trump Administration’s agenda what it is: an attack on civil and human rights across the board and LGBT individuals in particular. That starts with the unqualified and unfit federal judges Trump is appointing to the bench. We look to judges to serve as arbitrators of justice – as guardians of liberty who vindicate our most fundamental rights and advance our most cherished ideals. We charge judges with closing the gap between what our laws and Constitution guarantee on one hand, and what people experience in their lives, on the other. But again and again, Trump has tried to fill courts with extremist judges who have made discriminatory, hateful words and actions the hallmark of their careers.
From Stuart Duncan, who epitomizes the right-wing’s efforts to diminish LGBT rights; to Jeffrey Mateer, who defended “gay conversion therapy” and called transgender children – our children – “Satan’s plan,” this Administration continues to try to roll back the clock on pivotal progress in the fight for LGBT equality. The civil rights community mobilized aggressively and in solidarity to defeat Mateer’s nomination, which was ultimately withdrawn in December.
And to understand how important fair judges are, we need look no further than the Trump Administration’s attack on LGBTQ rights in our courts.
Less than three years after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, in which Justice Kennedy declared unequivocally that our Constitution guarantees LGBTQ women and men “equal dignity in the eyes of the law,” the Trump Justice Department continues to undermine civil rights. In Masterpiece Cakeshop, currently pending before the Supreme Court, President Trump and Attorney General Sessions have tried to deny LGBTQ people equal dignity in public life. And they have tried to do so under the veil of our fundamental right to religious freedom. But let’s be clear: this case is not about cake but about equality. And as The Leadership Conference and eight other civil rights organizations made clear in our amicus brief last fall, religious freedom does not come with, or sanction, a license to discriminate.
In our schools, just a little over one month into office, the administration rescinded critical Title IX guidance that helped ensure all students, including transgender students, could attend school free from discrimination. Every child deserves to learn in a safe, supportive environment. And every child deserves the chance to thrive and grow alongside their peers. But kids can’t succeed if they don’t feel safe. Last year, the Obama Administration issued that guidance precisely because schools, colleges, and universities asked for help to protect transgender students. The guidance sent a clear message to transgender students across the country: you are safe, you are protected, and you belong – just as you are. The hope is that school districts around the country will continue to do what’s right to ensure that all students can attend school free from harassment, bullying, and harassment regardless of this DOJ action. That is what we need to advocate for.
And in countless other areas, as well, from voting rights, to immigration, to health care, this has been a most challenging time for civil and human rights. Threatening the most vulnerable among us. Treating people differently because of who they are, where they come from, who they love, and how they worship.
And so the question confronts us: what can we do? What should we do? What will we do? We can start by working with and supporting impactful organizations like the Shepard Foundation to reject hate.
More than ever, it is clear that it falls to all of us to uphold America’s most cherished ideals. This year, I took the helm of The Leadership Conference at a time when the organization’s purpose could not have been clearer. The Leadership Conference was created in 1950 by Jewish, African-American, and Labor leaders who recognized that the fight for civil rights couldn’t be won by one group alone, but would have to be waged in coalition, across communities. Today, we are a coalition of more than 200 national organizations working on many issues – from racial justice, to religious freedom, to women’s rights, to labor rights, to LGBT rights, to hate crimes. And I want to acknowledge my colleague Ellen Buchman who is here with me today who has been such a force for good in our movement and in the fight against hate.
In partnership with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, The Leadership Conference launched a new initiative: Communities Against Hate. It is a diverse coalition of organizations coming together to protect the rights of vulnerable communities. We help connect victims of hate with the appropriate resources. We use data to change policy, drive change, and raise public awareness. We empower survivors by lifting up their stories. And we advance restorative justice to build sustained, impactful, and long-term solutions focused on respect and dignity.
The Matthew Shephard Foundation has been leading the charge on pushing for more accurate hate crime data. The FBI has been collecting hate crime data from 18,000 police agencies across the country since 1990. The annual Hate Crime Statistics Act report is the best snapshot of hate in America, but it is obviously incomplete: 90+ cities with over 100,000 in population either affirmatively reported zero (0) hate crimes or did not participate at all in the most recent report. We know we have a lot of work to do.
Hate crime statistics do not speak for themselves. We cannot effectively target resources to prevent and deter these crimes unless we know where and when they occur. And that is why the Foundation’s current work to encourage reporting is incredibly important, since we know some of the most likely targets of hate violence are the least likely to report these crimes to the police.
If marginalized or targeted community members cannot report, or do not feel safe reporting, law enforcement cannot effectively address these crimes, thereby jeopardizing the safety of all. We can and must do better – and we welcome your leadership on this important work.
At The Leadership Conference and I know at the Matthew Shephard Foundation, we know that eradicating hate, combating discrimination, and advancing justice cannot – and must not – be the work of one community or one industry or one organization. That’s why we’re eager to build intersectional partnerships: between civil rights leaders and business executives; between local police officers and federal officials; between men and women from different backgrounds and walks of life.
Because despite our differences, despite where we come from, despite where we work: we share common goals and a common humanity.
Whether fighting hate violence on our streets or litigating against discrimination in our courts, these are trying times. But despite the monumental challenges we face, I remain deeply hopeful about our future. And I’ll tell you why.
The work of the Matthew Shephard Foundation and of The Leadership Conference and of countless other organizations reminds us that while it of course matters who occupies the Oval Office, these things have never been decisive in our nation’s centuries-long struggle to realize the promise of our ideals. What has been decisive is the determination of men and women who have encountered injustice and decided to do something about it.
Over the course of the past year, millions of people in this country, many of whom have never considered themselves activists, have taken it upon themselves to protect the fragile progress that this nation has slowly made since its founding. They are organizing, marching, advocating, voting for tolerance, inclusion, and love. Civil rights organizations like the Matthew Shepard Foundation are leading the way to amplify the power of our collective voices and to fight for the America we all deserve – an America as good as its ideals.
We are propelled forward in this fight by hope. Hope is a discipline. It’s the hope that men and women today can build a more just, more inclusive, and more free future for the children of tomorrow.
It’s the hope that while the road ahead will be uphill, while it might feel at moments like we’re sliding backwards, when you look at where we’ve been, and where we can go – not as individuals but as communities, as one country, as one people – this journey and this fight are worth it.
On a bench in Laramie, Wyoming, a plaque reads: “Matthew Wayne Shepard: beloved son, brother, and friend. He continues to make a difference. Peace be with him and all who sit here.” Today, in 2018, despite so much dramatic progress, despite the zigs and zags of our nation’s history – Matthew’s life and legacy and family continue to make a difference and to spread peace. Celebrating diversity and promoting peace: that is our struggle to fight together. And we will fight for it tirelessly until the promise of America – and its laws – become a reality for all.
Looking around this room, I know we will continue to advance the cause of peace and justice and equality for all. Thank you to the Matthew Shephard Foundation for teaching us that when confronted with choosing between fear and love, we must choose love every time. We look forward to your next 20 years. Thank you.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is a coalition charged by its diverse membership of more than 200 national organizations to promote and protect the rights of all persons in the United States. The Leadership Conference works toward an America as good as its ideals. For more information on The Leadership Conference and its member organizations, visit www.civilrights.org.