The name Matthew Shepard means something different to people throughout the world. But, to the mother of the slain college student, the name represents a son who, although his life was cut short, continues to live on through the light his murder shed on the LGBT community.
Judy Shepard, who has become one of the most iconic figures in the modern LGBT-rights movement, will appear at the University of Pennsylvania Bookstore June 22 to read from and sign copies of her book, “The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed.”
Shepard’s life has transformed drastically since Oct. 7, 1998 — when Matthew, a gay 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was beaten, pistol-whipped and left tied to a fence near Laramie. He died from his injuries five days later.
At the time, Shepard was a stay-at-home mom living with her husband, Dennis, and son, Logan, in Saudi Arabia, where they had moved five years earlier with Matthew for Dennis’ job.
Since getting the call in the early hours of Oct. 8 from the hospital where Matthew was taken, Shepard has gone from being a mother, wife and substitute social-studies teacher to an LGBT activist who travels throughout the world to share her son’s story and raise awareness about bias-motivated crime and the need for acceptance, especially among youth audiences.
Instead of harboring her own hatred toward her son’s killers — Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, who alleged a “gay-panic defense” but are believed to have targeted Matthew because of his orientation, and now are serving two consecutive life sentences — Shepard decided to invest her emotions in the LGBT-rights movement to honor her son’s memory.
“I think this is what happens when you piss off somebody’s mom. You try to make it right for your child, for their friends and their community. I knew that I couldn’t help Matt, but I thought that maybe I’d have the opportunity to help his community.”
Among their LGBT activism, the Shepards created the Matthew Shepard Foundation, a national education and outreach agency that seeks to “replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance,” and had been tireless advocates for a federal bill to extend hate-crimes protections to the LGBT community. The bill — known as the Matthew Shepard Act — was approved last year, and Shepard stood next to President Obama as he signed it into law.
“I was overwhelmed and overjoyed,” she said. “This final step was finally taking place after so many close calls throughout the years. I think we know that laws don’t always prevent crimes, but this shows a level of respect from the government to the gay community. They’re officially recognizing this community, and I think it’s a great building block for, in the future, the government granting the community all the rights it deserves.”
Shepard’s outspoken support of the LGBT community has made her a target of protests by anti-LGBT groups, such as the Westboro Baptist Church.
The Kansas-based fringe group first garnered international attention when its members picketed Matthew’s funeral, but Shepard said she doesn’t let the group’s messages affect her.
“I don’t pay them any mind. I think they’re ridiculous, and I just don’t pay them any attention. I actually feel sorry that their whole life is immersed in hate.”
The Westboro protests were included in “Laramie Project,” a documentary theatrical production that details the murder and its ensuing impact on the town.
Shepard said the play has helped to educate countless audience members about the potential consequences of homophobia, especially those who were too young to see them firsthand in news reports of the murder.
“Especially now, when I go to speak at colleges, I see freshmen who were too young to be aware of what happened unless they’d actually seen or been involved in ‘Laramie Project’ or have a loved one in the gay community,” she said. “When all is said and done years from now, ‘Laramie Project’ will be the one true thing that’s left that survives. It’s 100-percent honest, and it’s never changed. It keeps Matt’s story alive. It’s transformative.”
Her son’s story is also retold in her own book, which came out last fall.
Shepard said she initially considered publishing a book of some of the innumerable letters of support her family received after the murder, but decided instead to pursue a memoir, partially to allow her family to revisit 1998 together — a time she said had become so ingrained in their daily lives, the details were murky.
“We were forgetting things. We hadn’t been back to those memories in eight or nine years, so we thought it was time to finally go back there,” she said, noting the book, which took about two years to complete, was a collaborative effort.
“I had to gather a lot of people together to be part of it. I had been getting the timeline wrong from what happened at the hospital to the police at the beginning because we hadn’t been back to those memories in years and years.”
Shepard noted that while it was difficult to put the tragedy to paper and reflect on the moment she learned of the attack and the prolonged courtroom experience, it gave her family the opportunity to look back on the minutiae that made her son who he was, and to define him by that instead of only by his murder.
“We remembered all these cool things about Matt, things we loved and things that annoyed us,” said his mother. “Most people never knew Matt. They knew the icon Matt, but not our Matt.”
The book doesn’t just portray Matthew as the heroic figure he’s come to be, but also explores his struggles and faults, which Shepard said can be learning experiences for other young people who may think they are alone.
“Life’s not defined by your mistakes; that’s how we learn. You just have to know not to make them again.”
Shepard said that in writing “The Meaning of Matthew,” she was exploring what her son meant to her personally, but came to see that one of the most significant results of Matthew’s death was the way in which it united and inspired LGBT individuals and allies to fight for tangible change for their community.
“I think what this made me realize that I hadn’t thought about was that one of Matt’s legacies is the generation of activists that was created after his death. And I think that’s going to be one of Matt’s greatest legacies.”
Judy Shepard’s free reading will begin at 6:30 p.m. June 22 at the Penn Bookstore, 3601 Walnut St.