Matthew Shepards’ Parents Have Built Their Lives Around Activism, And ‘The Wound’ Of His Death

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Photo: Dennis Judy Shepard 2019 1
Dennis and Judy Shepard stand in front of the newspaper story that ran after their gay son, Matthew was killed in October of 1998. The paper, signed by Elton John, hangs in their home in Casper, Wyo. on Jan. 8, 2019.

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.

Photo: Matthew Shepard
This 1989 photo provided by the Matthew Shepard Foundation shows Matthew Shepard in San Francisco. The murder of Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, was a watershed moment for gay rights and LGBTQ acceptance in the U.S., so much so that 20 years later the crime remains seared into the national consciousness.

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.

Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes: Why People Don't Report Them
In 1998, Matthew Shepard's attackers beat him severely and tied him to this fence outside Laramie, Wyo. Shepard later died in what was widely viewed as an anti-gay attack.

“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.

Photo: Dennis Judy Shepard 2019 2
Judy Shepard among the many awards she and her husband, Dennis Shepard have received for their work in hate crime education on Jan. 8, 2019 in their Casper, Wyo. home. It’s been almost 21 years since their gay son, Matthew was killed.

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.”