By Katie Mgongolwa
In a scenario that haunts every parent, Judy and Dennis Shepard’s 21-year-old son was murdered in 1998 in an anti-gay hate crime. His name — Matthew Shepard — came to symbolize the very real danger that LGBTQ people face each day in America. Twenty years later, in a time when hate crimes are increasingly common, there is a lot to learn from the Shepards’ ability to turn grief into action. The work they have carried on through the foundation they began to honor their son has changed history, expanding hate crime laws in the United States to include those motivated by sexual orientation and gender identity.
The roots of the Matthew Shepard Foundation began when Matthew was still in the hospital. People all over the country sent the family emails and cards, and many asked the Shepards to use the spotlight suddenly thrust upon them to shed light on the issues LGBTQ families were facing. “[People asked] us to take this opportunity when we had a voice to let people see a family accepting their child who happens to be gay, and loving them like all the rest of their children; that there was really no difference,” Ms. Shepard said.
While Matthew was violently taken from his parents, other families still had the choice to keep their children in their lives. “We loved Matt. There was never any question that he would not be part of our family because he happened to be gay. It was just who he was,” said his mother. “So that’s how our voices started out. That’s how we wanted to use our voices. We sort of felt we owed it to Matt to make his friends’ lives better.”
“We certainly didn’t think that 20 years later we’d still be doing this — that Matt’s name would still be associated with the movement, with hate crime, with progressing LGBTQ equality,” Ms. Shepard said. “But Matt’s story seems to be speaking to everybody, so we are still here. The programming has changed. The focus of the foundation has changed over the years. Right now it definitely seems to be hate crimes, hate speech, bullying, those kinds of awful things we thought we were leaving behind.”
The Shepards’ campaign for tolerance has met persistent opposition, but they have remained tenacious. For example, the Matthew Shepard Foundation has worked to get anti-bullying programs that include LGBTQ rights into public schools. “Some parents in some parts of the country are just not wanting to include gay kids in their anti-bullying programs,” Ms. Shepard explained. “They don’t understand how horrifyingly damaging it is to be bullied on a regular basis.”
In addition, the Matthew Shepard Foundation has been focusing its efforts on hate crime conferences that educate law enforcement and NGOs, informing groups about what hate crime legislation is and how vital reporting the crimes is. “It’s extremely important that people report and that law enforcement knows what to do with it and how to identify it,” said Ms. Shepard. “If [hate crimes] aren’t investigated, folks who are inclined to do them know nothing is going to happen to them; it’s consequence-free.”
Being a tireless advocate has meant encountering both political leaders and everyday community members with different points of view, but Ms. Shepard embraces this. “I do feel like we’ve made progress, and we’ve made it in a really important way: changing hearts and minds at a grassroots level,” she said. “When I first started speaking to college audiences, I could see their fear and their trepidation about their futures. I don’t think they felt any hope. What has happened since this is, indeed, hope.”
In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, changing federal hate crime law to include crimes motivated by bias against a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Since the legislation passed in 2009, the Justice Department has charged nearly 300 defendants for hate crimes under multiple statutes. “Without the Obama administration, I think we would still be treading water, trying to survive. He advanced us tremendously,” said Ms. Shepard. “Everyone in his administration totally got it; they understood. Not just about the gay community… about everybody, all the folks feeling marginalized.”
According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, hate crimes in the United States were up by 20 percent in 2016. And the upward trend continued in 2017. The same study showed another 20 percent increase in hate crimes this past year. To top it off, current leaders like Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are famously anti-gay rights and anti-marriage equality.
As a U.S. senator, Sessions consistently opposed pro-LGBTQ legislation and, specifically, spoke out against the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act on the Senate floor. And this past October, a New Yorker article by Jane Mayer revealed that while he was having a conversation about the Supreme Court and LGBTQ rights, Donald Trump motioned toward Pence and joked, “Don’t ask that guy — he wants to hang them all!”
“Our current administration isn’t concerned with human rights or civil rights, not the least bit. They want to take us back. I’m very concerned for marginalized folks who are again being targeted by Americans who don’t want them to succeed or even be around,” said Ms. Shepard, who plans to continue trying to work with schools, educating law enforcement, and advocating for hate crime reporting in the next year.
Over the last two decades, Judy Shepard has been teaching the power of loud hope, of working to create a world that is safer and kinder for the next generation. “If we make respect for everybody a primary part of education, we could advance moving beyond the ignorance that causes hate crimes. Because I think a lot of hate speech comes from ignorance. They don’t understand the differences in people, and they fear them; and that leads to anger and ultimately hate and sometimes violence,” said Ms. Shepard.
“Giving up is not an option. We may worship different, love different, dress different, live in different neighborhoods,” she said. “We are, at the core, looking for the same things. And why wouldn’t you want to help each other do that? I’m hopeful it’s going to happen. I’m hopeful.”
Katie Mgongolwa is a high school English and writing teacher in Durham, North Carolina.
Photo courtesy of the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
Copyright © 500 Pens. January 2018.