by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Staff Writer
June 1 at 7 PM
Twelve years ago, Judy Shepard's son Matthew was brutally murdered in Laramie, Wyoming. Now synonymous with Gay rights, Matthew Shepard's tragic murder has forever changed the way people view hate crimes - so much so that last year, over a decade later, President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a bill to expand federal hate-crimes laws to protect people attacked because of their sexual orientation or gender.
Long before the terrible hate crime that took his life and made him a household name in the arena of Gay rights, Matthew was simply Judy Shepard's son. In her New York Times bestseller, The Meaning of Matthew: My Son's Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed, Judy speaks for the first time, in book form, about her loss. Throughout the book, Judy shares memories of Matthew, their lives as a typical American family, and the pivotal event in a small college town that changed everything.
Judy told SGN that she wrote the book because " I wanted people to meet my Matt."
"Writing this book has been a difficult, yet rewarding project," Judy said. "I worked with friends and family to remember things in the right order, which was tough. So much happened so quickly. In short, I realized that 12 years later there still exist misconceptions about my son and the events leading up to his death. I wrote the book to set people straight."
The Meaning of Matthew follows the Shepard family in the days immediately after the crime, when Judy and her husband traveled to see their incapacitated son - kept alive by life-support machines - and how they learned of the horrible crime that had befallen him. Judy describes how the family was forced to deal with the terrible news that Matthew would not survive, and how her family, along with friends, banded together to face the media frenzy - unsure of the public's reaction.
"The decision to do something really came soon to our family," Judy told SGN. "We made the decision, as a family, to take the window of opportunity [because Matthew's story was so widely covered by the press] to make a difference. We saw that we had access to the national platform and the support of millions of people, so we decided to create the Matthew Shepard Foundation to fight against social injustice, create diversity awareness, educate, and promote equality for LGBT people."
"NOT A GAY OR STRAIGHT ISSUE,
BUT A CIVIL RIGHTS ISSUE"
Judy credits the success of the play and eventual movie The Laramie Project, as well as working with Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays; the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network; and the Human Rights Campaign for pushing the issue of hate crimes to the forefront on the national media and political platform. "People began to realize that this was not a Gay or straight issue, but a civil rights issue," she said.
After the shock and grief following Matthew's death and the overwhelming rallying of a county shamed by the horrific crime of two men, Judy tells readers how the Shepards struggled to navigate the legal system and ever-present media coverage as Matthew's murderers - Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson - were put on trial.
"The trial was tough," Judy told SGN. "There were, and still are, people who don't want to admit that that could happen to a young man. It is hard for them to stomach that my son was killed because he was Gay. I do still run into some of those people today. But if you read the trial transcripts and the confessions, the proof is there. It makes people uncomfortable so they look for other reasons as to why this happened. For some people, it is easier for them to try to change history to make it comfortable where they live. The truth is there is such a thing as pure evil in this world - no matter where you live."
Initially, Judy says she was going to write a book that included reprints of the many thousands of letters and e-mails that the Shepard family received during Matthew's hospital stay, immediately following his death, and throughout the murder trial.
"We received about 10,000 cards and letters from individuals around the world," Judy told SGN. "We got letters from anyone you could imagine, from all walks of life - even politicians. We would get a sympathy card and they would just write and write until the card was full, and then they would write some more on notebook paper. It was almost as if people just had to vent. The larger percentage of content was not Gay related, but love related. People were outraged that something like this could happen."
Judy says that while Matthew was fighting for his life at the Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, the hospital received over 100,000 e-mails voicing concern. "Out of all those communications," she said, "maybe 1% or less were negative."
The Meaning of Matthew is not just an account of Matthew's murder. Throughout this powerful account, Judy also looks back at Matthew's childhood, his early years with his family in a small town, and the family's move abroad to Saudi Arabia, including Matthew's tenure at a Swiss boarding school. She chronicles Matthew's talents and struggles, his preternatural empathy and kindness, and how she had an inkling about her son being Gay long before anyone else.
"He was about 8 years old when I began to wonder if he were Gay," she told SGN. "I think I knew he was Gay even before he did. There was never a question of acceptance; we all loved him, but I knew this was going to be something challenging in his life. This was during the 1980s when the AIDS pandemic was scaring everyone beyond logic."
The Meaning of Matthew is an incredibly moving book that makes sure that Matthew's life and legacy continues to be as important to millions of young homosexuals and their families in this country today as it was 10 years ago. Throughout the book, Judy confides to readers how she handled the crippling loss of her child in the public eye and specifically how she learned to distinguish between her son the person and her son the symbol, why she became a Gay rights activist, and the challenges and rewards of raising a Gay child in America today.
THE FIGHT FOR GAY RIGHTS
Since her son's death, Judy Shepard has become a beloved face of Gay rights in the U.S.
"What we [Matthew Shepard Foundation] do right now is educate and raise awareness," she said. "It is important that we engage not just the Gay community, but the allied communities as well. Bullying is a giant problem right now; we are trying to find out ways to address it. The Matthew Shepard Foundation is part of the movement to raise awareness about being civil."
One of Judy's greatest achievements happened late last year when she watched President Obama sign the Matthew Shepard Act into law. "It was amazing," she recalled. "I wasn't sure it was going to happen because, you know, we'd been close before, during the dark years of the Bush presidency. But Obama signed the bill, and that's a great thing. It is amazing to have legislation at a federal level that protects the LGBT community. We know it won't prevent, but it will stem the tide of all hate crimes. Most importantly, it is a building block for other legislation for the Gay community such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and to do away with the federal Defense of Marriage Act and 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'"
"As far as DADT is concerned, my gut is telling me that we do not give enough credit to the young men and women who are serving," Judy told SGN. "This issue is generational. The young generation doesn't care who is Gay in the military. My generation, and older, were indoctrinated into fear of the Gay community. Ignorance, unfortunately, is still rampant."
"I just want people to understand that the LGBT community are beings - they are just different for who they love, and at the end of the day it doesn't really matter," she said.
"I would hope that a lot of parents read this book," Judy told SGN. "As a parent, I know that your life can change in a heartbeat. To reject your child because of sexual orientation is terrible and such a waste. You could lose your child at any moment, so make sure you love them every day for who they truly are."
Judy Shepard will be available for a book signing and questions and answers event on June 1, at 7 p.m. at the Seattle First Baptist Church (1111 Harvard Avenue). The event is sponsored by Elliot Bay Book Co.
"I am a classic introvert, so these book signings are challenging for me," she admits. "But I love meeting with people to hear their stories. I don't do a reading because I couldn't possibly pick just one part to read. However, I do answer questions from the audience. I specifically like seeing LGBT youth and parents of Gay kids at the events. They are encouraging to me and proof that things are changing."
For more information about the Matthew Shepard Foundation visit the organization online at www.matthewshepard.org. For information and resources geared towards LGBT teens, visit www.matthewsplace.com.
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