Some 300 law enforcement and community organization representatives attended the inaugural Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act community conference today at Georgia State University.


Hundreds pack Atlanta conference on federal hate crimes law

The event was hosted by the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office.


Atlanta is one of the cities where this training is taking place because Georgia is one of only five states that does not have a state hate crimes law in effect. The other states are Arkansas, Indiana, South Carolina and Wyoming. The law, signed by President Barack Obama on Oct. 28, 2009, expanded the 1969 federal hate crimes law to provide protections for sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and disability.


Conference speaker David O’Malley served as commander of the Laramie, Wyo., police department in 1998 when Matthew Shepard, a gay 21-year-old college student, was tortured and killed because of his sexual orientation. O’Malley shared his story of how he was once very anti-gay.


“I would say ‘faggot’ as easily as I said ‘I love you’ to my kids,” O’Malley said today.


But Shepard’s case started a journey for him, he added, that led him not only to tolerance but to acceptance of those different than himself.


Those in law enforcement today may not want to accept gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, but the federal law requires them to be at least tolerant, he added.


“We can start now to make a new ending. I’m accepting, but in our business we have to be at least tolerant,” he said.


Dennis Shepard, Matthew Shepard’s father, made a rare public speaking appearance at today’s conference.


“It’s up to you to do your job whether you like it or not,” he said.


“As David said, there’s a difference between acceptance and tolerance. I know how hard it is for some of you to accept the law; I know how hard it was for me to accept originally Matt was gay,” he said. “But there are people out there who are terrified … the law is in effect and you are the leading lights in your community.”


The conference included detailed discussion of the law and how state and local agencies can work together with federal agencies when an alleged hate crime occurs in their jurisdiction.


A panel discussion with people representing various demographics included three LGBT community activists: Melinda Morgan of Georgia Equality, the state’s largest gay advocacy organization; Cheryl Courtney-Evans, founder and executive director of Transgender Individuals Living their Truth; and Rev. Paul Graetz, senior pastor at First Metropolitan Community Church of Atlanta.


The law is named for Shepard and James Byrd Jr., an African American who was killed in Jasper, Texas, also in 1998, when two known white supremacists tied him to their truck with chains and dragged him until he was decapitated.