On the night of October 6, 1998, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was tortured and left for dead in an antigay hate crime. On October 12, 1998, he died in the hospital. Fifteen years later, his parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, continue their activism in Matt’s memory.
They founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which is dedicated to spreading compassion and acceptance and furthering LGBTQ rights. A big win came in 2009, when President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which strengthened federal hate crime laws. I spoke to Judy Shepard about the Matthew Shepard Foundation, what she wants the world to know about Matt and how to stand up for LGBTQ rights.
ACT: Why was it important for you to start the Matthew Shepard Foundation? What are some of the most important accomplishments you’ve made so far?
JUDY: When Matt was in the hospital, before he passed, we got so much mail asking us not to let this opportunity go by. To try to make a change, to try to make a difference. We thought it would be a good way for us as accepting and loving parents of a gay child to encourage other parents, because you never really know when you’ll lose a child, or if you will or not. It became clear that we were doing it for Matt, something he would do if he were still here, to be an advocate for equality.
In terms of accomplishments, the biggest would be getting a president to sign federal hate crime legislation. We worked on it since Matt’s passing in ’98, and in 2009 it finally happened. We had a president in favor of it who recognized the importance of it. It’s great to see the discussion of gay, lesbian and transgender rights be in the public forum all the time.
ACT: If readers aren’t familiar with the story, how can they learn more about your son?
JUDY: I wrote a book, “The Meaning of Matthew.” It was to introduce our Matt to everyone who only knew him as “Matthew Shepard.” They could get to know Matt as a person: his dreams, his aspirations. It became disconcerting to us that some people were making Matt a saintly gay icon, and I wanted young people particularly to know he wasn’t a perfect icon. He was a college freshman. He drank too much, he smoked too much, he didn’t go to class enough. I wouldn’t want my life to be defined by when I was 21, as his forever will be. I wanted to make it clear that Matt had struggles with depression, loneliness, and breaks in confidence. It was critical to us that this truth was out there. I didn’t want young people to think he was an unattainable goal on how to be a human being.
ACT: Can you tell us more about the pro-social issues that mattered to Matt, and how you’re continuing them?
JUDY: Equality, for sure. In the summer of ’98, we were having this discussion about gay marriage because Hawaii was passing it around. He asked me if I thought same-sex couples would ever be allowed to marry. I said, “I think you will see it in your lifetime, but I will not.” Ironically, the reverse happened.
ACT: Can you tell us more about Matthew’s Place, which is geared toward young people?
JUDY: We knew we wanted to help young people, young people who are struggling with acceptance and coming out. So we started Matthew’s Place as a resource area with links to counseling services and centers and health issues. I sort of viewed it as a watershed of information. It’s gone through several incarnations, and now we have bloggers from high school and college. Guest interviews. Still have many links. It’s a very dynamic website and we work hard to keep it relevant.
ACT: Do you have any advice for young people coming out who may be worried about receiving negative reactions?
JUDY: The way society is today, we still feel that if you’re gay you have to tell people. It should just be who you are. You don’t have to come out as straight, so why do you have to come out as gay? In today’s society we have to do that, and individuals will face different degrees of rejection and acceptance. You just have to believe in yourself, most of all, that you are who you are and that’s the best way to be. You’ll never be happy living a life other people think you should be living.
ACT: What’s one thing about Matt that you want people to know about him?
JUDY: He was very caring, and he just loved people. He was extremely empathetic. He was a person like anyone else, a human being. Not a photograph or a description on a page. A full, three-dimensional person with quirks, ideologies, a big personality. We miss him greatly.
ACT: How has LGBTQ rights changed in the last 15 years since Matthew passed?
JUDY: When I first started speaking at colleges fourteen years ago, I would look into the kids’ eyes and there was such fear, and the knowledge that what happened to Matt could happen to them. Now, what I see in those faces is a sense of entitlement that says, “I know I’m being denied basic civil rights, and I’m going to get them. I know my friends are being denied basic civil rights, and I’m going to help them get those rights.”
ACT: How can people get involved in the Matthew Shepard Foundation? Outside of helping the foundation, how else can people stand up for LGBTQ rights, and the rights of people in general?
JUDY: My suggestion is to sign up for our newsletters. I always encourage people to get involved with their local LGBT organizations. We frequently do events in cities, and we would love for you to join us as a volunteer. Just go online and let us tell you what we’re about, let us share our successes with you, our concerns. Just be part of our work to make this world a better place.
Tell your stories. What we’ve learned over the last fifteen years is how important it is to tell your story. If you don’t tell people your troubles, they will not know there is an issue, and they will not know how to help. Hate crimes are still going on, but we don’t read about them in the papers. You can still be fired from your job [for being gay] in some states. It’s incredible the community is still being legally discriminated against in so many avenues. You have to tell your stories, because they take away the stereotypes.