For every Matthew Shepard, there are probably scores of other gay hate crime victims nearly no one has heard about.
Shepard's death sparked more nationwide attention than the 1993 slaying of transgender man Brandon Teena, whose story really didn't reach most households until the 1999 film on his life Boys Don't Cry and the Oscar-winning performance of Hilary Swank. How many people nationwide have heard of Sakia Gunn, the 15-year-old Newark, N.J., teen fatally stabbed in May after she allegedly rebuffed the advances of a man and told him she was a lesbian? Or Elvys Perez, better known as Bella Evangelista, the Washington, D.C., a transgender woman killed in August after a man, who had paid Evangelista for a sex act, discovered she was biologically a man?
In 1998, the timing of Shepard's slaying — as well as who he was — may have been responsible for national attention the case generated.
"Maybe it was just the right time, the nation was ready to talk about gay issues when Matt was killed," said Romaine Patterson, gay activist and friend of Matthew Shepard. "The year before, Ellen DeGeneres had come out. Maybe it was the crucifixion imagery [a reference to authorities finding Shepard with his hands and legs tied to a fence] that the media immediately got caught up in. Plus, maybe the fact that Matt was this cute little white kid played a role in why his death generated the attention that it did."
More Flamboyant But Less Sympathetic?
After Shepard's death, vigils were held not only in Wyoming, but in places as far away as New York, Florida and Washington, D.C. Shepard looked like the boy next door and he had the support of his family, which had the means to generate the media attention.
However, transgenders, bisexuals and other gays and lesbians often are not as fortunate. Often transgender and bisexual victims of hate crimes are estranged from their families and have no one — except fellow members of the transgender and bisexual community — to grieve for them. Their biological relatives may be too embarrassed to publicly grieve for them.
In addition, the more "flamboyant" nature of transgender and bisexual victims may make them somehow less sympathetic — at least in the eyes of mainstream media and even gays and lesbians who consider them embarrassments and a cause of many of the stereotypes associated with the community.
"I'm not sure whether it could be the news cycle, race, class, socioeconomic status or what. When was the last time you saw any story of national significance come out of Newark [Sakia Gunn's community]?" said David Tseng, executive director of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. "Some of it may have to do with lack of education and understanding of the issues involved with transgender and bisexuals in the mainstream media. And some of it may have to do with a lack of understanding from some members of the gay community."