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Judy Shepard speaks out against anti-gay violence

Published: Thursday, October 14, 2010

Updated: Tuesday, July 5, 2011 17:07

Around 8:55 on Mon., Oct. 11, Judy Shepard stood in a dimly-lit Seegers classroom, looking out the window into the haze of a sudden downpour. She was preparing to speak to an audience so filled with students, faculty, and alumni that the Great Room wasn't big enough to hold them all. Students sat on windowsills, and others found seats in the Events Space, where a live feed of Shepard would be available to view. But apprehension about her speech seemed to be the furthest thing from Mrs. Shepard's mind. This date, Oct. 11, should have been a day of celebration. Instead, Mrs. Shepard was preparing to acknowledge the twelfth anniversary of the brutal murder of her son, Matthew. Mrs. Shepard began by announcing that Oct. 11 is National Coming Out Day. She said that normally this would be a celebratory day, but she is forced to recall the moment her son was declared dead on Oct. 12, 1998 at 12:53 a.m. Her son, Matthew Shepard, was a 21-year old student at the University of Wyoming when he was beaten, tied to fence, and left to die, all because he came out as a homosexual.

Mrs. Shepard shared with the audience her Victim Impact Statement that she gave during Russell Henderson's trial. Russell Henderson was one of the two men responsible for Matthew's murder. The statement allows the family of the victim to convey to the judge the anguish, pain, and devastation the crime has caused. The entire audience sat spellbound as the heartbroken mother read her statement, and twelve years later, still had to choke back tears. Mrs. Shepard took the audience back to the week when Matthew was first attacked, lying in a hospital bed covered in blood, and finally to the moment he passed away.

Judy Shepard and her husband Dennis were living in Saudi Arabia when they received the call on October 8, 1998 at 5 am that their son had been attacked near Laramie, Wyoming. Mr. and Mrs. Shepard came to understand that Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney had attacked Matthew a little after midnight on October 7, 1998. It was unclear the reasons as to why these men robbed, pistol-whipped, and savagely beat Matthew leaving him tied to a fence for eighteen hours, but Mrs. Shepard believed it was for "twenty dollars and twisted reasons."

When Mr. and Mrs. Shepard finally reached Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado after the long flights back from Saudi Arabia they were shocked at what they saw. Matthew lay in his bed motionless and unaware of the world around him. His face was covered with blood, stitches, and lashes from the pistol-whipping that left him unrecognizable. Mrs. Shepard knew it was her son only because of his braces and the "cute little bump" on his ear he had since he was born. Mr. and Mrs. Shepard and their younger son Logan wondered how such an event could take place, especially to their Matthew. He was described by his father as "an optimistic and accepting young man who had a special gift of relating to almost everyone. He was the type of person who was very approachable and always looked to new challenges. Matthew had a great passion for equality and always stood up for the acceptance of people's differences."

After Matthew's death a lot of things could have happened to the Shepard family. They could have closed themselves off to the world, they could have mourned over Matthew for their rest of their lives in silence, but instead they all took steps to try to change the world in honor of Matthew.

No one would expect that Mrs. Shepard's presentation would have had people laughing and smiling, but somehow throughout her devastating story she managed to make the audience laugh. Mrs. Shepard was very composed and very determined to have her son's story heard, and she encouraged her audience to tell stories of their own. Because if we all stay silent, there will never be an end to the hatred that led to events like Matthew's death and the recent suicides of young, gay teens.

"I thought we had come further than that," Mrs. Shepard said of the hatred that led to the 'September Suicides,' "but apparently we still have a lot to learn."

A high school social studies teacher, Mrs. Shepard is no stranger to educating students. She has spoken at over five hundred schools promoting the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an organization founded by the Shepard family that provides support and encourages diversity, and speaking out against anti-gay hate.

Shepard was adamant that being gay is not a choice. "Who would choose that life?", she asked, after discussing the way that gays and lesbians still loose their jobs, have trouble buying homes, and are denied many of their basic civil rights. "They're just the same as you and me," she said of the LGBTQIA community, "they bleed the same, breathe the same, dream the same. There's no difference."

Her call to action pleaded with the audience to respect one another, be conscious of avoiding stereotypes, and above all: vote. "It's your greatest right as an American," Shepard said, acknowledging that legislation is the most important way to rid our country of anti-gay hate. "Matt knew that judging, stereotyping, and categorizing was a loss of an opportunity," Mrs. Shepard said of her late son. It is her hope that in speaking to students around the country, more people can learn to think that way.

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