Matthew Shepard, a gay 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, died 25 years ago after he was savagely beaten by two young men and tied to a remote fence. His death was memorialized as an egregious hate crime that helped fuel the LGBTQ+ rights movement. Any perception that the long struggle for equality had been won has been belied by events over the past two years. More than 20 Republican-controlled states have enacted an array of anti-LGBTQ+ laws, including bans on sports participation and certain medical care for young transgender people, as well as restrictions on how schools can broach LGBTQ+-related topics, The Associated Press reports. “Undoubtedly we’ve made huge progress, but it’s all at risk,” said Kevin Jennings of Lambda Legal, which has been litigating against some of the new anti-LGBTQ+ laws. “Anybody who thinks that once you’ve won rights they’re safe doesn’t understand history. The opponents of equality never give up. They’re like the Terminator — they’re not going to stop coming until they take away your rights.”
Some new laws are directed broadly at the entire LGBTQ+ community, such as Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, which imposes bans and restrictions on lessons in public schools about sexual orientation and gender identity. In many of the GOP-governed states, including Florida, the prime target of legislation has been transgender people. In addition to measures addressing medical treatments and sports participation, some laws restrict the use of the pronouns trans students use in classrooms. The key to changing the current dynamic is for more people in GOP-governed states to get to know and understand trans people, said James Esseks of the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBTQ & HIV Project. “But the efforts of the other side are designed to stop that from happening,” Esseks said. “They want trans people to disappear — no health care, can’t use public restrooms, can’t have a government ID consistent with who you are, and the schools can’t teach about the existence of trans people.” President Biden marked the anniversary of Shepard’s death with a call for Congress to enact the Equality Act to extend federal civil rights protections to LGBTQ+ Americans.