Been There

Continuing violence against GLBT people keeps Judy Shepard in the fight for equality.
By Nancy Ford
Photos by Jemal Countess/WireImage and Jason Kempin/WI Reimage

See also Turn the Tide of Hate

It’s all too familiar. Judy Shepard was “deeply saddened” by the news of the shooting in February of California teen Lawrence King. “My prayers go out to all of Lawrence’s friends and family,” she said. “This terrible incident underscores the fact that we cannot let hate go unchecked in our schools and communities. Our young people need our direction and guidance to prevent this type of crime from happening. I urge all parents and teachers to educate their children and students about acceptance, understanding, and compassion.”

Comedian Kate Clinton presents Judy Shepard with the Excellence in Media Award at the GLAAD Media Awards, March 17.

Before Shepard arrives in Houston to address both the Human Rights Campaign annual Houston gala on April 12, and GLOBAL, the GLBT student group at Rice University, she talked to OutSmart about these violently trying times, the upcoming presidential election, and her work to make sure her son didn’t die in vain.

Nancy Ford: It’s hard to believe that 10 years have passed already since your son’s death.
Judy Shepard: It is.

You have said you developed the Matthew Shepherd Foundation to provide individuals with tools and resources they need to amplify their voice and to turn the tide on hate in America. Ten years later, can you give us your impression on how high or low that tide is?
Well, you know, we can only compare it to what it used to be. When I speak at colleges and high schools, the look in the students’ eyes, and not just the gay students, but all the students, is one of fear and apprehension and trepidation in their future, because this hate is once again rearing its ugly head.

But now what I see is a lot of confidence, and a sense of entitlement, which they absolutely should have, a willingness to be who they are all the time, and make a difference. It’s this generation that’s going to change everything.

I agree with you in that respect. Do you speak to a lot of high schools and colleges?
I do a lot of colleges. High schools are a little more tricky to get into. I don’t get a lot of invitations from high schools. It’s still a hot-button issue in a lot of areas in the country. Private high schools, I’ve done quite a few, but not public.

It would be wonderful if that could change, especially given what happened in California recently. You’re probably one of the few people who can give any consolation or words of advice to Lawrence King’s family. What would you share with the families of victims like   
That’s an interesting question, because it doesn’t have an answer. Even after having gone through that myself and, even with members of our family, there just are no right words to say. There just never are. It’s a horrible thing to happen, and you can empathize and sympathize and listen, but coming up with the right words or even advice just isn’t—it just isn’t possible.

Shepard with her son Logan (l) and GLAAD president Neil Giuliano.

Lawrence that might give them some kind of comfort or perspective in their grief?

When we were first going through Matt’s stuff, and the process of learning how to cope and deal and realizing we were now one short in our family, the last thing I wanted was some complete stranger coming in to tell me, “I know exactly what you’re going through. I’ve been there myself.”

No, you haven’t. Not at all, you haven’t. Even in the situation where you’ve lost a child to a hate crime or a murder, every family’s situation is different. It’s just not possible to make things better for them. It just isn’t.

Last year here in Houston, a gay man, Kenneth Cummings Jr., was murdered by a man who believed he was the prophet Elijah and was acting on command of God. Do you have anything to say to our community — to gay men, in particular — that might help us be a little more wary of the danger that lurks out there?
We just need to pay attention to our surroundings. It’s a very sad thing that we have people in our society that are unbalanced. But they don’t only affect the gay community. They affect everybody. It’s a tragedy, for sure. And I’m not sure that we can even say that the religious right who preaches, essentially, hate against the gay community, how much responsibility they hold for what happens to the gay community.

Society in general is responsible for allowing anybody to say those things about the gay community or allow those myths to perpetuate. It’s more than just one person who is unbalanced who attacks a gay man. It’s the person who is unbalanced who attacks anybody. We need to address this situation of hate, even in mental illness, as a group, as a nation.

That’s a really good point, Judy. Going back to the foundation itself, what are some of the tools that you’ve found most effective in your work at the foundation to combat the attitudes that lead to this kind of violence?
Well, there are a couple of things: We try to engage our allies more actively and more effectively. And we’ve also created a website, www.MatthewsPlace.com, that lists a lot of resources for direct service providers, places people can go—in particular, young people—to feel safe, to be safe, to get the help they need and places to go if they’re on the street. Things they need to be aware of.

These are kids who are on the streets who, most, aren’t prepared to be on the street. They didn’t choose to be there. They don’t have the coping skills to be there, a lot of them. We need a society to watch out for that, and do something about it.

Luckily, there have been studies done recently. The National Gay Lesbian Task Force did a wonderful study two years ago, I think, listing the statistics of gay kids on the streets and how our hands are tied, really, to help them because of, once again, the myths that society believes about the gay community.

You mentioned working with the foundation’s allies has been a good tool. We know that folks in PFLAG and GLSEN and the Task Force are going to be behind your efforts 100 percent, but have there been any that have stepped up that have surprised you?
Well, those organizations come to mind, certainly, but also individuals. Certainly, once parents of gay kids and parents whose children have friends who are gay hear the stories of members of the community, or even Matt’s story, they are moved to do something. Sometimes it takes a personal event to raise awareness and move people to action, but I am amazed at how frequently it’s happening now. And a lot of it is in relation to The Laramie Project [the 2001 theater piece by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project]. People who participate or go watch it are transformed.

I’ve noticed TLP productions aren’t being picketed as much as they were at one time. Maybe things are getting a little better in that respect.
Exactly. Well, you know they used to protest because it “promoted the gay lifestyle.” You know they haven’t read the play if that’s what they’re saying.

That’s usually the case with matters concerning censorship.

Again, speaking in terms of allies, what are your feelings about the presidential race? Which presidential candidate, in your mind, would be most sympathetic to hate-crimes legislation?
Well, it [the Matthew Shepard Act, formerly known as the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act] did pass through both houses this time. The problem was, it was jerked in committee. We did it healthily with a big majority in both houses, which is why I’m hoping they’ll do it again before the election. It would be so time-consuming to reeducate new people about what the hate crime bill is.

We’ve got it going. We just have to keep it active. Whether or not President Bush will actually sign it is another question. So there’s a good and a bad there.

And the candidates, all three of them, McCain included, I think, are not opposed to hate-crime legislation. Technically, I’m not allowed to endorse a candidate, but we pretty much know that, as a party, the Democratic Party is more favorable to the gay community than the Republican Party as a whole, even though we have great friends on both sides of the aisle in Congress. As a party, taken as a group, the Republican Party is a little more difficult to educate and move along the right direction.

But I think both Clinton and Obama would be excellent on our issues.

See also Turn the Tide of Hate

Judy Shepard is the keynote speaker for the Human Rights Campaign Houston gala, set for Saturday, April 12, 6 p.m., at the Hilton Americas. Joe Solmonese, national HRC president, also speaks at the event, introduced by Houston mayor Bill White. Ross Mathews, the openly gay television personality best known as Ross the Intern on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, serves as emcee. Tickets: $175–$500. Details: www.hrchouston.org.

At the annual HRC dinners in other cities this year, some transgender individuals and organizations have staged protests against HRC for its support of an Employment Non-Discrimination Act with language that did not include gender identity and expression as well as sexual orientation. Observers expect some type of protest in Houston by local trans activists and allies, though plans had not been disclosed at press time.

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