The Shepards thought it was a car wreck that put their son Matthew in the hospital.
Judy and Dennis were living in Saudi Arabia at the time, and it took 50 hours to get to their son. When the Shepards were back on U.S. soil, family members revealed what really happened.
“They said, ‘His story is all over the internet, radio, newspaper, everything,’” Dennis Shepard recalled. “For what, a car accident? She said, ‘Well it’s not a car accident.’”
In 1998, Matthew Shepard, an openly gay college student from Wyoming, was beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead. This year he will have been dead for as long as he was alive — 21 years.
His parents began their fight for LGBTQ rights and hate crime prevention immediately, and have continued it to this day.
“It just exploded,” Dennis said. “We were rather shocked then and we still are. He seems to be the kid next door everybody can relate to. It doesn’t matter your religion, or your gender or whatever … They could all pick out something in there that reminded them of themselves or a close friend or relative.”
But the parents didn’t expect the activism to define the rest of their lives. In 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama. The act made gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability protected classes under federal hate crime law.
“We thought two years, maybe, people would remember Matt and Matt’s story,” Judy Shepard said. “So the notion that it was dedicating our lives to this work, we would do it in whatever way we could but probably not in the way we’re doing it now. I mean I would be the PFLAG mom making cookies not the PFLAG mom at the podium.”
Judy said the act has helped, but the country still has a long way to go. Five states in the U.S. have no hate crime laws whatsoever, while a large number of states still allow a person to be fired from their job over their sexual orientation. The Matthew Shepard Act also does not require mandatory reporting, leaving the possibility for under reported hate crime numbers.
“Why would you report a hate crime if you’re in danger of being outed and losing your job?” she said.
To protect those people, Judy said federal job protection laws need to be passed. These days, most of the Shepards’ work involves hate crime education. They travel all over the country speaking to law enforcement, community organizations and citizens about hate crime in the U.S.
Last October, on the 20th anniversary of Matthew’s death, his body was buried at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. During the ceremony, Dennis described how important it was for Matthew to have a home that people could visit, and a home away from acts of bigotry.
“We didn’t want to put his ashes any place where there was a chance of vandalism,” he said. “And we knew it would happen. As soon as you got out of sight there would be somebody in there either tearing up a headstone or throwing paint or doing something to vandalize it and destroy it and desecrate it.”
After almost 21 years without their Matthew, Judy said the grief never goes away.
“The concept of closure is a joke,” she said. “It just gets different. Rose Kennedy used to refer to it as, ‘The scab that you continually remove.’ You think you’re healing and then something happens and you realize you’re really not. You just learn to build your life around the wound.”