Matthew Shepard’s mom continues fight for social justice
The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida will host the inaugural ‘Diversity Honors’ dinner, co-presented by the Harvey Milk Foundation and the Pride Center at Equality Park, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday, May 9.
It is a unique and milestone event designed to unite the South Florida LGBT community. Stuart Milk will present the Harvey Milk Honors Medal to Judy Shepard. While the two have met infrequently, they share a mission of standing up and speaking out for LGBT equality.
On a lonely cornfield outside Laramie, Wyoming in October of 1998, Judy and Dennis Shepard lost their 21-year-old son, Matthew, to a brutal murder motivated by anti-gay hate. Today, Judy is the national spokesperson keeping her son’s legacy alive, speaking out for social justice, diversity awareness, and equality for the LGBT community.
In the corridors of San Francisco’s city hall in November of 1978, Stuart Milk, then only 18 years old, lost his uncle, Harvey, to a brutal murder motivated by anti-gay hate. Today, Stuart is the national spokesperson keeping his uncle’s legacy alive, speaking out internationally for social justice, diversity awareness and equality for the LGBT community.
Judy Shepard and Stuart Milk have something in common. Each carries a torch that still burns brightly today.
Judy Shepard spends 26 weekends a year traveling, wondering what floor her hotel room is on as she returns from one speaking engagement after another. The sometimes-tedious journey, she says, has been tempered by the spiritual rewards she has gathered.
“I am honored and touched and moved everyday by young people and their stories. It breaks my heart when they might not have a mom who accepts them at home, or a family who is supportive.” With a mother’s touch, Judy’s 2009 memoir, ‘The Meaning of Matthew,’ illuminated her continuing passion to advance civil rights; to bring to justice her son’s murder.
“People are really changing today,” Judy told SFGN. “Colleges are filled with students who live with conviction instead of fear.” She attributes the shift in social attitudes at least in part to President Obama’s election.
“There was a sea change in Washington when Obama was elected,” she asserted. “It was like a cloud lifted over the capital. Suddenly the nation had permission to fight for social justice.”
It has been an effort that has yielded sweet victories. On October 22, 2009, the U.S. Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. President Obama immediately signed it into law.
Conceived as a response to the murders of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., the measure expanded the 1969 United States federal hate-crime law so as to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, or disability.
The acceptance Shepard said dawned years ago has blossomed today. This year she will speak in the Dominican Republic, accompanied by representatives from the Department of Justice and the State Department. It is a country where the church came down on the Obama administration for appointing Wally Brewster, a gay ambassador.
“We are weaving together a new world.” Judy said. “People are recognizing that women’s rights and gay rights are all really human rights, and they all should be respected.”
Still the journey requires more than Judy’s passion. Going into colleges requires consciousness-raising. The entering college freshman in 2015 was born the year Matthew died. “I have to tell his story over and over again, so it does not ever happen again,” Judy said. “But I am forever grateful and happy that the young boy or girl growing up today doesn’t live in the world Matthew did.”
With the state department, she will go to the Dominican with a video that the Department of Justice helped put together, illuminating Matthew’s story, told for years through the renowned Laramie Project.
“We have come so far, but we still have a long way to go,” Shepard noted. “We have to look forward to change the things we can change. We have to talk about tomorrow.”
Working towards that day, the Matthew Shepard foundation is still based in Casper, Wyoming, with a small staff and smaller budget then you might think. The Foundation works to “Replace hate with understanding, compassion, and acceptance” by continuing to tell Matthew’s story and through education, outreach, and advocacy programs.
As she prepares to come to the Hard Rock to address a crowd of 300 in South Florida, Judy will have her suitcases packed and ready. Dozens of more engagements are now scheduled for the rest of the year, including one on July 4 in Philadelphia where the organizers of the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the LGBT Civil Rights Movement will present her with their ‘International Role Model’ Award.
Judy Shepard has now spoken to more than a million people worldwide, including addressing the United Nations and a hate crimes conference in the Polish Parliament. She has delivered addresses more than 65 times to faith communities or on campuses of religiously affiliated colleges and universities, including Notre Dame and no less than eight Jesuit schools.
During Judy’s visit to Cisco Systems Headquarters in 2010, a senior executive at the IT firm was so moved by her presentation that he came out to his entire company. She has spoken more than 50 times in front of corporate audiences and Fortune 500 companies, even Walmart and Coors.
“It is challenging,” she acknowledges, but Matthew’s mom finds solace “in the quiet of a hotel room, with a good book and my husband by my side… Dennis being with me makes everything doable.” Still, it’s easy to see why Judy may occasionally forget what hotel room floor that elevator key in her hand goes to.
Like Stuart Milk, Judy Shepard honors the legacy of a life lost too soon; of a senseless death that might have been lost in time were it not for the passion of a loving relative.
Like Stuart Milk, the story is no longer only of the life taken away, but the new history cycle generated by that tragedy. Seventeen years away from her son’s death, Judy has given birth to a legacy of her own, one that speaks for social justice and LGBT equality worldwide.
The Matthew Shepard Foundation generates funds through Shepard’s speaking engagements, but you can help by shopping online, and acquiring some of their eco-friendly, popular ‘Erase Hate’ T-Shirts and wrist bands. The site is MatthewShepard.org/store.
If you are going:
Tickets for Diversity Honors are $150 per person; corporate tables of 10 are $1,500. For more information, visit DiversityHonors.com.