Fifteen years ago, Judy Shepard was not making speeches or pressuring lawmakers to pass civil rights legislation. But after the high-profile 1998 murder of her gay son Matthew, the Wyoming stay-at-home mother began advocating for the LGBT community, mostly through the establishment of an anti-discrimination foundation and 2009 federal hate-crimes law that both bear her son’s name.
Now, she tells stories and hopes that the one about Matthew that she’ll present on March 24 at The Center—and the ones she recently shared with the Weekly—will inspire others to speak up themselves.
When we interview rock bands ahead of their Vegas appearances, they always like to talk about how Las Vegas represents the “vacation” part of their tour. You are probably a much different kind of rock star, but are you looking forward to the Vegas visit outside of your presentation here? I am. I have friends coming in and some who live there I’ll see seeing, so that will be cool. We were just there in February for the Time to Thrive conference, so I took a little vacation then. Lost some money, too!
When you speak in a certain place, do you try to address concerns of that area, as they pertains to social justice and the LGBT community? Or does the presentation focus solely on Matt, and the universal nature of what he stands for? My program always starts at what happened at the trial because I want people to know what it felt like then, to be there then, and what it was like 15 years ago. After that, I try to come back into the future to the location of where I am, if I am at all aware of what is happening locally or statewide. If I don’t know that, then I go into federal issues.
But I definitely try to get people motivated to do more. I find a tendency now that since marriage [equality] is [catching] on relatively quickly, other people think the fight is over, when there’s so much left to be done. We remind folks your job is still in jeopardy, your housing situation is still in jeopardy, [there’s] family issues, adoption, acceptance is still an issue. So that’s what I focus on.
In your 2009 memoir, The Meaning of Matthew, you frankly recognized not just Matt’s sexuality, but his humanity and struggles. It would seem you can easily empathize with LGBT youth. Do you get the sense people who feel misunderstood by even their own family members might look to you as a sort of den mother? I do. Especially in the very beginning. Fifteen years ago, it was more difficult for kids to be out and to tell their parents. It’s still hard, and that’s one of the things we’re hoping won’t matter anymore. It’s hard to keep a secret and then share that secret when your family might reject you, or your friends or society. And in the beginning, it wasn’t just kids, but all kinds of folks who would share their story with me. I felt very honored that they trusted me to do that. They felt I would [lend] a sympathetic or empathetic ear.
We still get a lot of correspondence at the foundations from kids who share a lot with us. I think they feel comfortable [with us]. They want help with how to tell their story. It’s an interesting problem because everyone’s story is so different, right? It’s based on their family environment and dynamics, and where they live, and how old they are. Kids are coming out so much younger than they ever have, and that creates a whole new set of problems.
Has it been hard to hear people with good intentions misrepresent Matt? Was that a big reason you wrote The Meaning of Matthew? Absolutely. We began to see Matt becoming this idealized icon, I guess, that we knew Matt would not be happy with. He talked about his problems, and tried to share his own issues with others and compare notes. [He would ask], how did you get through this, how did you get by, can we talk? I felt like group therapy was always in session with Matt and his friends! So I absolutely felt, as did his dad and brother, that the true story about Matt be out there. Whether or not people took the effort to [curtail the myth-making], it’s like the old adage: You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.
Passion and intense feelings seem to drive people to activism, but I imagine it takes an equal amount of unemotional focus and detachment to keep this work up. Is trying to step outside yourself and working in a more rational zone the secret to continually working this hard on something so sensitive and obviously personal to you? I don’t even know you, but you have guessed my secret! I absolutely have to do that—there’s no way I could keep doing this. When I first started [speaking in public], sometimes I would cry. I couldn’t help it—I would see things in my mind I didn’t want to see. It would bring up so much that I had to figure how to keep those images out of my head. I found if I broke down or even look like I was, people would stop listening to me and start worrying about me. I couldn’t have that; I’m here for them to listen because I have something to say. So I figured out a way—and it doesn’t always work, but it mostly does—to sort of compartmentalize the really emotional stuff and try to make it more analytical, and move people to do something.
Since the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed, what progress and changes are being made? Or is hate manifesting itself in different, less overt or visceral ways? We’re not finding that they’re decreasing. My personal feeling is that [labeling this as] a preventative act is disingenuous because laws don’t prevent people from doing stuff, or we wouldn’t need prisons, right? One thing that’s happening is that the media is no longer covering them from beginning to end. We might hear about a sensational crime in the beginning, but we rarely hear what happens in the end.
There are more cases that now can be handled by federal law enforcement, which is one of the things we were striving for. If local communities can’t or won’t do anything about it, then if it meets the parameters of the new law, the federal government can step in. And we’ve seen a few prosecutions take place, and a few enhancements that were part of the decision—though not many.
To me, the most important thing about the law is that it sent a message of respect and for citizens to pay attention, one that recognizes the LGBT community as one in jeopardy. That sort of sunk in. I never understood why it took so long to actually pass, and that it had to be attached to another bill—they didn’t think it couldn’t stand alone. It started with hate crimes and we thought people couldn’t object. Apparently, many people did.
We are seeing, legally anyway, some steps forward, though socially, it’s slower. But to actually codify the words gay, lesbian and transgender in federal law is a big, big step.
Dan Savage had his successful It Gets Better campaign. Given your work in the trenches, how much of that is bearing out? Do the majority of kids still have to wait to leave high school before they can feel comfortable in their own skin? It is getting better. A lot of has to do with where you live: how rural it is, and how big of an existing LGBT population is there that you can draw knowledge from. That’s a huge factor still. It is happening with younger and younger [kids], and some public school systems still don’t know how to deal with or want to deal with it. That’s a problem.
But the It Gets Better campaign was hugely successful and I think large part of it is the attention it attracted from professional sports teams, celebrities, politicians and important business people who participated in the message. That was a huge thing for people to see. I am still hearing about it, but we knew from the beginning that telling stories is how things change. Giving it a personal story to back it up—when we added Matt’s and James Byrd’s names to the bill, it brought to people’s minds two horrific acts. It’s like, oh, that’s why we’re doing that bill, that’s why that’s happening. So every time a gay person tells their story, their co-workers begin to have a different view of what the gay community really is, not the stereotypes they’re used to. So telling stories is huge, [and viral phenomenons like] Dan’s campaign, and the NOH8 campaign, and the Erase Hate photo campaign by the Matthew Shepard foundation all have been very successful in letting folks share their stories so other folks get to know them better.
The transgender community is of course part of the larger gay community, but their concerns have a different and more complex dynamic. Does the Foundation directly address what can and needs to be done to facilitate their acceptance and rights? We try. We have a website called matthewsplace.com for bloggers to share their stories, many of them transgender. We’re not a direct service provider, but we provide information and links to places they can go for help. We try to be up to date and tell the stories of the transgender community because I work with the Human Rights Campaign and it’s definitely a big thing they’re involved with. It’s a huge issue where I think largely the population is just ignorant … If we can just educate folks, it would be easier to figure out what it would take to help them. It’s different yet not different to lesbian, gay and bisexual issues, and includes acceptance within their own community.
There’s a lot of work to be done for transgender folks and we try to include them in everything we do, which is not just for kids, but anyone facing any sort of harassment. it’s a hate issue, not a gay issue.
It would seem you have spent much of your life since Matt’s murder trying to uphold and share his set of values. How much—and how differently—has he made you look at both yourself and the world? Well, I have to say, he learned those values from us. They certainly focused us, but they didn’t change us.
He started the conversations. You never think your 4-year-old will be interested in those things (laughs). As long as I can remember, Matt’s focus was always on making people feel better. Anyone who was bullied in the schoolyard or in class, even in his neighborhood, he took it to heart and made the change. He tried to make people see that this is the wrong thing to do, that people’s feelings matter. We would answer questions and help him all we could, but the conversations were initiated by him and his interests and feelings. So I guess maybe it was more like a collaboration.
Given Matt’s passions and interests, do you ever wonder what he would think of his mom giving speeches and working with lawmakers to help change the world, given that she wasn’t 15 years ago? I think he would be surprised that I do it because he knew I am an off-the-scale introvert. He always felt there was more to me than being a stay-at-home mom. So I’m hoping he would be pleased and surprised—not surprised by the choice of work, but being out in front of people.
The Legacy of Matthew Shepard March 24, 7 p.m., free. The Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada, 401 S. Maryland Parkway. RSVP 862-8600 or [email protected]