“This is what happens when you piss off someone’s mom”
by Brandon Wolf
Photo by Dalton DeHart
EXPANDED WEB VERSION
I arrived early and found a table where I felt we would have the most privacy. Judy Shepard was in Houston as part of a book-signing tour sponsored by the Penguin Group, publisher of the recently released paperback version of her memoir, The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed. This interview was sandwiched between her other Houston commitments—addressing a Holocaust Museum symposium, and introducing a special performance by Theater New West of The Laramie Project, a fundraiser for the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
Although I had read the memoir and knew that Shepard learned more than a decade ago to put mind over matter, I was anxious. Talking with a mother about the savage 1998 murder of her college-age son was bound to be an emotional minefield. My reservations evaporated as soon as she responded to my greeting. She made me feel as if we were longtime friends meeting over coffee to catch up on each other’s lives.
I had expected to meet her husband, Dennis, too, but there was a last-minute change in plans. Dennis retired last year, she explains, though he still works as a freelance occupational safety and health consultant. “He got an offer to help with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico,” she says—adding that he finds the odor in the Gulf overwhelmingly unpleasant.
A Mother Transformed
I first met Shepard in late 1999 at the Colombe d’Or on Montrose Boulevard. The occasion was a kickoff for a public service announcement that she had just filmed for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). My memory from that meeting was of a guarded and slightly remote woman. With the pain from the loss of her son obviously still raw, she seemed driven to be where she was at, doing what she was doing. But despite her resolute nature, she had a deer-in-the-headlights look, still not accustomed to the demands of public appearances. She declined addressing the HRC gathering from the podium on that day, and simply stood up from her assigned table when introduced. A thunderous applause exploded in the room, and the standing ovation continued on and on. I could see even then that she was determined to make this about Matthew and not about her.
Sitting in the Monarch Restaurant, I found myself amazed at the transformed woman I was interviewing some 11 years later. Shepard is approachable, pleasant, and polite. She is also a woman in control of herself and her mission in life, speaking with confidence and passion, totally knowledgeable about the gay community and its relevant issues. It seems obvious that she’s seen it all during the intervening years, and yet she’s still in this effort for the long run.
“Originally, I had planned a book about the letters sent to us,” Shepard says. “They were beautiful and touching—from all over the world and from all walks of life. People sent cards and signed them, then started to write something more personal. They would fill up the insides and the backs of the cards, and [even continue] on separate sheets of paper.
“I approached a book agent, but he thought I needed to write a memoir first. I thought it over and talked with a friend at The Advocate. He said he would help me, and so that is how the book came to be. The entire process took three years, and was originally planned for the 10th anniversary of Matthew’s death. But 2008 was an election year, so we decided to wait.”
The Meaning of Matthew was published in hardback in August 2009 and immediately hit the New York Times Bestseller List. A paperback version was released in May 2010. In addition, an audio book version was recorded by Shepard and her husband (he reads the touching statement that he made to the court before the sentencing of his son’s killer, Aaron McKinney).
The book looks back on Matthew’s early life and the days prior to his death. For the first time, Shepard tells the story of what it was like to be wrenched from a private life and thrust unwillingly into the spotlight of worldwide media attention, even as her family struggled to deal with the trauma of Matthew’s attack and eventual death. She talks of the stress of Matthew’s memorial service and the agony of the trials of Matthew’s killers. Then she tells the story of the founding of the Matthew Shepard Foundation and the work it does today, turning personal heartache into something positive and transformative.
“For many years, it was just me and a personal assistant and someone in Denver,” Shepard says as she talks about the foundation. “But then we began to grow, and I felt that it was at a place where we could become more than just me speaking to groups.”
Shepard is the executive director of the foundation, and there is now a separate director for the operations, development, and programming functions. Shepard speaks to larger groups, and another employee works with individual classroom visits. Son Logan, Matthew’s younger brother, helps out however he can. She describes him as “a perpetual intern.”
“He doesn’t really have an office personality,” she says, “so I’m not sure what his future will be, but for now he is happy to be a part of the effort and, among other things, he writes an Internet blog.”
The basic purpose of the foundation is awareness and education. “We’re not a direct service provider, but we know who to refer people to,” Shepard says. The foundation focuses on anti-bullying efforts in the nation’s schools. “We’re trying to start a dialogue and keep it going.”
Shepard is represented by a speaker’s bureau that facilitates her speaking engagements. She estimates that two-thirds of the year she is on the road, sleeping in hotels and living out of suitcases.
Most of her talks are given at colleges and private schools. “Public schools consider me dangerous,” Shepard says. “They are afraid of what I’ll talk about and don’t want to deal with the objections of some parents. I don’t know how parents have gained so much control of public schools,” Shepard reflects. “And it’s not just in particular regions—it’s everywhere in the country. Gay teachers are often afraid of advocating for me to speak, because their jobs could be on the line. Half of our states still don’t have nondiscrimination laws, and teachers can be fired for being gay.”
Shepard says that she has revised her approach by simply addressing the issue of bullying in general, stressing the importance of respecting all individuals for who they are. She speaks about all students who are at risk, even though she still believes that gay and lesbian students are at greatest risk.
The foundation often gets letters from gay and lesbian youth who are called queers, fags, and dykes. “And it’s not just gay youth who write,” Shepard explains. “It’s also straight students who are perceived as being gay.”
Shepard’s speaking engagements usually run about 75 to 80 minutes, and she sticks to general assembly formats. “First I show an eight-minute video that was put together by the Department of Justice about Matthew and James Byrd Jr. It’s a compressed version of a longer video. Then I read my victim’s impact statement that I read after the sentencing of [accomplice] Russell Henderson. I talk about Matthew and Wyoming, and about the current state of gay and lesbian legislation throughout the country.”
Her speaking engagements end with a question-and-answer period. “Almost always, I get the same six questions,” Shepard says. Although she occasionally gets a surprise question, students usually ask about the death penalty, forgiveness, where McKinney and Henderson are now, how are her husband, Dennis, and her other son, Logan, are doing, what the difference between a crime and a hate crime is, and how she convinced her late mother that she was okay.
I ask Shepard how she answers that last question. “I’m just honest and confident,” she responds. “If I’m afraid or ashamed, she will be too.” Shepard’s mother died in 2006. “But I really lost her twice,” she says. “First, I lost her to dementia for six years. Doctors tell me a person with Alzheimer’s forgets where their keys are. A person with dementia forgets what to do with their keys.”
The largest groups that Shepard has addressed were at the marches for equality in Washington. “There were close to 700,000 people at those rallies,” she says. The largest private address was to a group of 2,500 in Michigan. The farthest she has traveled was to Italy for a film festival sponsored by a local gay community there. She spoke to the audience through an interpreter.
Early Allies of the Shepard Family
Shepard’s book describes the church where Matthew’s memorial service was held, on the day of the event. “There was a huge arrangement that I noticed was from Elton John,” she says. “What I didn’t know was that he had bought out every flower shop in Laramie and filled the church with flowers. The air was so fragrant that day.
“He’s a special man,” Shepard says, speaking of the rock star. “He’s very kind, caring, generous, and professional. He’s a real gentleman.”
Elton John came to Laramie in 1999 for a fundraising concert. He returned again in 2009 on the 10th anniversary of the concert. Shepard is also close to rock singer Cyndi Lauper.
In the months after her son’s death, Shepard studied all the major gay organizations in the country and contacted them. “I told them I knew I was now a presence in the media, and I wanted to help. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) was the organization closest to my heart, because I’ve always been a political junkie.” Elizabeth Birch, then the head of HRC, became a close friend and remains so today.
Three years after Matthew’s death, Shepard met actress Judith Light and her husband. “She was absolutely wonderful,” Shepard says. “Some people are really genuine and sincere, and Judith is one of those bright stars.”
Letters poured in from around the world. “The most unexpected was a letter from Coretta Scott King, the widow of the civil rights leader. It was incredibly touching and very meaningful to me.”
All of the letters and memorabilia have been catalogued and are stored in the Shepard’s current home in Casper, Wyoming. Also in Casper is a bell-shaped memorial funded by a local Methodist church. “It’s in honor of Matthew, Columbine, and 9/11,” Shepard says. “Every time the bell rings, it carries prayers to heaven.”
Shepard became close to Sean Maloney, a Clinton aide, and visited him in the White House on numerous occasions. She was introduced to President Clinton during one of those visits. She also got to know Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper. “They are very wonderful people—all of them.”
But a wall of silence descended in 2001 when George W. Bush took office. “All the doors slammed shut,” Shepard says. She had no interaction with the Bush administration.
The doors opened again with the election of Barack Obama. Shepard was invited to a regular Wednesday luncheon for community leaders given by First Lady Michelle Obama. In May of 2009, she met with President Obama in the Oval Office, and he promised that he would see her again when he signed a hate crimes bill he expected Congress to finally pass.
The Hate Crimes Prevention Act
On October 28, 2009, when President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the Shepard family was in attendance. “The pen that President Obama gave me is now in the HRC Building in Washington DC,” she says. “What mattered so much to our family was that the Act was not an end. It was, in fact, just the beginning.”
The Act expanded existing United States federal hate crimes law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. It also dropped the prerequisite that the victim must have been engaged in a federally protected activity when the crime occurred.
“Sometimes communities refuse to acknowledge that a crime is a hate crime. Prosecutors and law enforcement officials make those decisions. They run into a lot of resistance in rural areas. The Act allows the federal government to step in,” Shepard explains.
The White House event gave Shepard a chance to renew her friendship with the James Byrd Jr. family. “They don’t travel much outside of Texas, so we lost touch,” she says. She is aware that the family refused to allow sexual orientation to be removed from the proposed Texas hate crimes law, thus assuring its veto by then-Governor Bush. She is also savvy enough to remember that when the law was finally signed, “orientation” was changed to “preference” at the last moment.
Shepard’s husband, Dennis, has recently been asked by the FBI to help educate their agents about the ramifications of the new Act. “The only requirement he had was that he wouldn’t have to wear a business suit. So he wears his Wranglers and his boots.”
Matthew Is Not an Icon
Shepard says that she wants the world to see her son as a real person. “If he is portrayed as an angelic icon, young people coming out will not be able to identify with him, thinking they have to be some kind of [saint]. He shouldn’t be portrayed as perfect, because he wasn’t.”
Matthew often battled with bouts of deep depression. “Depression is another issue that concerns me,” Shepard says. “It’s an epidemic, especially in the gay community. All of society’s indoctrination is that being gay is somehow wrong. Gay youth have to overcome that, in addition to everything else that is going on in their lives.
“Matt wasn’t a reader,” Shepard recalls, “but he did love movies. And he had eclectic tastes in music. He liked Elton John and he liked Clint Walker. He especially liked Billy Joel’s “River of Dreams” and Garth Brooks’s “The River.” He paid great attention to the lyrics of both of these songs. Matt used to get angry with me because I liked to play music, but not from the 1980s. He complained that he was ’80s-deprived.”
Although Shepard doesn’t remember discussing Harvey Milk with Matthew (who was only two years old when Milk was assassinated), she does remember discussing the Hawaii gay marriage issue with him. “Matt asked me if there would ever be gay marriages,” she recalls. “Ironically, I answered that I probably wouldn’t see it in my lifetime, but he would in his.”
Dealing with Matt’s Killers
“Before the trial, I knew everything the prosecution was going to use,” Shepard remembers. “I knew they would try to employ the ‘gay panic’ defense. I wasn’t surprised by anything that happened in the courtroom. There were two witnesses who said that Matt had made them feel uncomfortable. But I thought that said more about them than about Matt.”
Her husband’s remarkable courtroom address to Aaron McKinney was actually re-written several times. “He had to submit it to the judge, who kept returning it for revisions. There was great concern that anything prejudicial would be grounds for appeal. But Dennis eventually realized that writing down his feelings on paper over and over again was actually therapeutic.”
Although the plea bargain with both defendants gave them each two consecutive life sentences without parole in exchange for removing the possibility of the death penalty, Shepard notes that the arrangement is not foolproof. “If a governor of Wyoming ever commuted one of their life sentences, they would be eligible for parole.”
The arrangement also stipulated that neither man could talk with the press or market memoirs from which they could benefit financially. But in 2004, 20/20 took advantage of their being moved to another jail facility and interviewed the men. “They figured it would be easier to issue an apology after the fact, than to ask permission before.” In the interviews, the men claimed that Matthew’s murder was really a drug deal gone wrong. Later, they would refute their own claims.
Shepard says she hasn’t given reconciliation—a face-to-face meeting with her son’s killers—any thought. “A reconciliation process has to start with them, and they have never requested it. There is no remorse on their part. What remorse they have is for having been caught, not for killing Matthew. Aaron McKinney still considers himself a folk hero. In 2009, he was quoted as saying that he felt sorry for Dennis because he lost his son. But he didn’t feel sorry for me because I won’t shut up.”
“I was devastated when Brokeback Mountain lost the Best Picture Oscar,” Shepard says. “I loved the movie and thought it was beautiful. I was so disappointed, too, that Heath Ledger wasn’t given the Best Actor award.”
Diana Ossana, who teamed with Larry McMurtry to write the Brokeback Mountain screenplay, also wrote the foreword to The Meaning of Matthew. “Her daughter attended the University of Wyoming in Laramie at the same time Matthew was a student there,” Shepard notes.
Shepard also discovered that Annie Proulx, the author of Brokeback Mountain, was called as part of the jury pool for the trials of Matthew’s killers. Proulx lives outside Laramie, and since the area is so small and the case was so big, nearly every registered voter was included in the initial pool. Proulx did not serve on either jury. “Some people think Annie wrote the story after Matthew’s death, but she actually wrote it and published it with a collection of short stories prior to his murder.
“There was a lot of talk about whether or not Brokeback Mountain would come to Wyoming,” Shepard says. That seemed incredible to me, and I asked her, “Even after all that had happened?” Shepard’s response was, “Especially after all that had happened!”
Ultimately, the local theater in Casper, Wyoming, decided to give the film a one-week run. The film turned out to be so popular that it remained at the theater for the whole summer.
The Road Ahead
“I think a big part of Matt’s legacy is that there is a whole generation of people who stepped forward who would not have if he hadn’t been killed,” Shepard says. “And those who stepped forward did so with a much greater sense of purpose.”
Shepard says the biggest transformation that she has witnessed since her son’s death is the faces of the students that she addresses. “When I first started speaking, I saw their fear and trepidation about being gay. They all realized that it could have been them instead of Matt. Now, however, I see determination and acknowledgement that what is happening to them is wrong, and they are going to change it. It’s strength and courage that I see.
“What gives me hope to keep going on every day,” says Shepard, “is that we are making progress. It’s not everywhere, but it is there. And in another two decades, it’s going to be a part of everyday life.
“The 20- to 30-year-olds are definitely different,” Shepard says. “They haven’t grown up in a world where there wasn’t Will & Grace. Or a world without gay characters that are depicted positively in books and movies. The world they have grown up in has been much more accepting. Unfortunately, though, it’s not true for all young people—some are still indoctrinated into a world of hate by their parents or by their religion.”
Shepard sees gay marriage becoming a reality one day. “But I think it will have to [be mandated by the Supreme Court]. If we had turned civil rights over to a popular vote in the 1960s, we wouldn’t have anything that we have today. I think it will come from a Supreme Court challenge, and the current lawsuit over Proposition 8 could possibly be the crucial case.”
Reflecting on the issue of bullying, Shepard says that zero-tolerance policies don’t work. “They just suspend the bully, but they don’t address the issues that make people bullies. A bully is a bully for a reason. And if we don’t address those reasons, we’re not changing anything. After the suspension is over, the person comes back and the whole cycle starts all over, and there isn’t a safety net in place. We also have to address the issue of the bystander. There is no such thing as an innocent bystander; they, too, are part of the problem.”
A member of the Episcopal Church, Shepard says she doesn’t get into church politics. “But if dioceses want to leave because of the ordination of gay priests, I think they should go. It’s a matter of free choice who a person loves, and they don’t need religion to interpret for them what love is.”
Shepard knows that her name is sometimes trashed by fundamentalist groups who think that hate-crime legislation is an affront to their values. “But it’s willful ignorance,” she says. “I think some people rely on their religion and their Bible to cover their own bigotry. We’ve got a conservative, fearful part in our society, and those people just don’t want to go outside their comfort zone.
“I’m not surprised by anything any more,” Shepard says. “I’m more disappointed than surprised. People who I thought would help, don’t.” She specifically criticizes the Cheney family. “Cheney had so many opportunities to make changes, and Mary was no newcomer to working with the gay community. But after the 2000 election, she didn’t say a word.”
Shepard says that although her husband is retired and she is able to see him more often, she doesn’t expect that to last. “He’s still too young and vibrant, and he wants to find another job.”
For herself, Shepard sees a continually busy speaking schedule. She says that she has always hated public speaking. “But what I do is a different animal. It’s not public speaking, it’s more like I’m just talking to people in my living room.”
I ask Shepard if it’s possible to ever find closure. “No,” she says, “it just feels different with time. But it never gets better, and some days are worse than others. There is no such thing as closure.”
As I put forth the final question of our interview, Shepard registers surprise for the first time. “How would you like the world to see Judy Shepard?” I ask. She ponders that for a few moments and then replies, “As a mom who is still fighting for her son. I am often told that what I do is brave. But it’s not really that. This is what happens when you piss off someone’s mom.”
Brandon Wolf is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.
SIDEBAR: In The Meaning of Matthew, Judy Shepard looks back on the 10 years that have elapsed since the horrific incident that claimed her son’s life.
The Meaning of Matthew is a gripping, emotional book that reveals the private side of what Matthew Shepard’s family endured in 1998 as the murder of their son became worldwide news. Anyone who lived through those days as Matthew clung to life will remember the media coverage. Ironically, the Shepards never saw any of those stories in newspapers or on television. The family refused to follow the reporting, out of fear that their emotional energy would be needlessly drained. They were determined to remain strong while they kept a vigil at Matthew’s bedside.
The extent of the media coverage first became apparent to Judy Shepard in an airport on the way back to Laramie, Wyoming, from her home in Saudi Arabia where her husband worked at the time. Walking by a newsstand, she was stunned to see her son’s picture on the front page of every newspaper on sale. Shocked that the whole world was now watching her family as they tried to deal with their own personal and private trauma, she rushed into a bathroom and threw up in one of the stalls.
Initially, the family felt exploited by both the press and gay activists. Hidden from public view until her son’s memorial service, she remembers being sickened at the sound of camera shutters endlessly clicking at the first sign of her tears during the service. And yet, despite her desire for privacy, she admits that she momentarily regretted cremating her son’s remains before the service. “I wanted the world to see what had been done to my son,” she writes.
The trials of Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney taught her about the need to control her emotions. Having been warned that any display of grief in the courtroom could prejudice the trials, she forced herself to be totally composed. But the sight of her son’s bloody clothing finally proved too much. She audibly gasped, bringing every eye in the courtroom to rest upon her. At some point during the trial, an accidental meeting with her son’s killer in the underground passageways of the courthouse left her sickened and shaken.
Shepard begins her memoir with stories of Matthew’s life, and she works hard to portray him as a real person, capable of making her happy at times and leaving her frustrated at others. Just a short time before his death, she telephoned him and became involved in an angry exchange over his inability to manage the money they regularly sent him. For the first time that she could recall, Matthew swore at her, and she hung up on him. Days later he called to apologize. She expresses her great relief that his last words to her were that he loved her.
In trying to come to grips with her son’s murder, Shepard found herself seeking out some way to bring good out of her unimaginable loss. Slowly, but with firm determination, she began to speak out against the hatred that is so often directed toward gays and lesbians.
Ultimately, Shepard leaves us with a picture of complex and very human people. She refuses to paint either her son or her family as saints. Rather, she reveals just how much they are like other families by offering up characters with whom we can easily identify.
A shy and private person, Shepard nevertheless took up the burden placed on her shoulders by fate, and determined that if she was going to do something, she would do it well and with passion. A keen observer of human nature, she even puts herself in the shoes of those with whom she speaks, pointing out that if the situation were reversed, she too would find it difficult to speak with the mother of a murdered son.
The Meaning of Matthew is not just a narrative of her family’s ordeal with the unrelenting spotlight of media attention. It is also a call to action—written in hopes of ensuring that there will be no more Matthew Shepards. Ultimately, the book is a triumphant vision of the legacy that her son’s death has left behind.
Shepard sums it all up on the opening page: “This story is dedicated to all the ‘Matts’ out there who feel that Matt’s story is a reflection of their own struggle. Hope is out there, and change is coming.”