At the beginning of this month, lawyers for the man accused of murdering Matthew Shepard attempted to use a “gay panic” defense, maintaining that Shepard provoked his own murder after he made homosexual advances towards their client. Gay activists across the nation were outraged by the implications of the defense, which, if accepted, would have sent the message that killing someone based on their sexual orientation can be justified.
“The fact that the lawyers even tried the gay panic defense is a sign of how much bigotry is still out there,” says Peter Montgomery, part of the editorial team behind Hostile Climate, a new report detailing incidents of anti-gay harassment during 1998. The report is the work of People For the American Way (PFAW), a Washington, D.C., advocacy group that monitors censorship and bigotry.
Although an occurrence like Shepard’s murder would not make PFAW’s list, the lawyers’ defense strategy would. PFAW focuses on decisions made by individuals, government bodies and institutions that contribute to a national atmosphere of intolerance.
This year’s report details almost 300 incidents in 47 states, more than twice as many incidents as reported in last year’s edition. The states with the most anti-gay activity were, logically, the states with the highest populations. However, Montana made it on the pages after state Sen. Daryl Toews (R-Lustre) threatened to cut the University of Montana’s funding if it offered a class called Queer Stories: Literature of Sexual Differences. According to Hostile Climate, Toews, who chaired the Senate Education Committee, claimed that legislative support for school funding could erode unless the course was dropped. UM President George Dennison spoke out in support of the class, but the course was ultimately dropped due to low enrollment.
Chris Lockridge, a member of the Western Montana Gay and Lesbian Community Center, says that this year the state legislature again showed its biases, refusing to add sexual orientation to the existing hate crimes law, despite the addition’s vigorous support by a broad spectrum of community and law enforcement groups. Lockridge also says it will take a legislative act, which has thus far been refused, to remove the “sodomy law” from the books, even though the Montana Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional.
Still, Lockridge feels that, as a whole, gay activists are making progress, even if it’s not always apparent. “There are days when I wake up and feel like there is still so much work to do,” he adds. “But there are also days that I’m thankful things are different from the way they were 30 years ago.”