Judy Shepard is the mother of Matthew Shepard, who was a victim of a hate crime in Laramie, Wyo. Afterwards, she became a strong leader for LGBT rights and composed a memoir about the ordeal called The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed. Judy Shepard will be speaking at the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted, next week. She spoke exclusively with Jerry Nunn about the book.
Jerry Nunn: Hi, Judy. I just finished reading your book. Was writing it cathartic for you?
Judy Shepard: There is a yin and a yang to that, right? You have to go back there and relive all of those memories: the trial, the hospital and all of that. But the good part is that it allowed us as family—this was a collaboration so I could keep things in the right order—to remember the things about Matt that made us happy but annoyed us as well.
JN: You were candid about a lot of things, which must have been hard to be.
JS: That was the reason that I wrote the book. I didn’t feel it was fair to Matt or to his peers and friends to not be as honest as I could be, to my knowledge anyway. I wrote the book so people would meet Matt. I couldn’t have done it another way.
JN: For your appearance on Center on Halsted, are you reading excerpts from it?
JS: I have a general program that I do, which includes my big impact statement from Russell Henderson’s sentencing. [ Editor's note: In 1999—a year after Matthew Shepard was killed—Henderson pled guilty to felony murder and kidnapping in the case of Matthew Shepard. He was sentenced to two consecutive life terms without parole. ] I talk about politics a little bit, Matt and Wyoming, on what it is like to grow up here and be here. I talk about the general state of the gay community in a legislative legal sense. After, I do a session with questions and answers.
JN: President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard Act last year. How have things changed since the signing?
JS: Well, the FBI and the Department of Justice went right to work. They were very encouraging to us because they sometimes start a job that never gets done. They had training sessions for law enforcement officials that they were aware of what the law does and what it can do now, along with community leaders. They have been to the states where there is no hate crime law with Wyoming being included. I don’t know if actual occurrences have been altered in any way with a hate crime. But I certainly hope that the reporting of the crimes has been improved. I guess we will know soon, that would be great if we didn’t have to find out, but actually being able to prosecute more judicially would work.
JN: You are working for a campaign for schools, correct?
JS: Yes. We have always been involved in the bullying issue as it deals with kids at risk, not just gay and lesbian kids. We are very specific that our website, matthewsplace.com , deals with not just the gay and lesbian youth but all youth at risk who feel somehow on the fringe of what else is going on or bullied. This is not just about gay kids. It is about kids perceived to be gay or different. This is a big issue and I am glad the Department of Education is taking that on.
JN: I grew up in the South and was picked on in the past.
JS: Yeah, now you throw in cyberbullying. This is almost impossible to do anything about because it is so anonymous. It is just awful.
JN: People feel protected hiding behind a computer.
JS: Well, they are given a false sense of courage, right? They can be just as mean and nasty as they want.
JN: I noticed on the website that Jennifer Beals from The L Word is helping you with some proceeds from her book.
JS: Yes, she has been a great friend to the [ Matthew Shepard ] foundation and several celebrities have been. She has just been terrific.
JN: That is good to hear.
JS: That has been one of the rewarding things is that people who command respect and audience have been really good to us.
JN: Great. So the website people can go to is matthewshepard.org .
JS: Yes, and matthewsplace.com . They are both undergoing a redo so I am not sure where we are at in the process. We are getting some stops and starts right now.
JN: What can people in Chicago do to help with the cause?
JS: Because we don’t do chapters, to help us is to be out and honest about who you are. That is really the only way to change things is to tell our stories. Support your local groups, be sure and vote, be an educated voter, and pay attention to what is going on. Tell your stories, you need to share life about what you don’t and do have with family and friends and not just one.
JN: You are a hero to me. I really got a lot out of your book. I cried during the part with Logan in the hospital and I am sure it was not easy to share that story. I appreciate you writing about it.
JS: Well, thank you very much.
JN: We will see you in Chicago.