Equality Advocate Judy Shepard Talks with Letters
| There will be a special fundraising event for the Matthew Shepard Foundation on Saturday, August 13 from 4-6:30 at the home of Dr. Jim D'Orta and Jed Ross at 123 Silver Lake Drive. Special guests will be Judy and Dennis Shepard, parents of Matthew Shepard, killed by a vicious hate-crime in Laramie,Wyoming. The Foundation, in honor of Matthew, with a mission of embracing diversity, is now led by an Executive Director, but inspired and guided by Judy Shepard, now a vocal and effective advocate for the gay community.
In advance of the Rehoboth event, Judy Shepard spoke by phone, from her home in Laramie, with Letters features editor Fay Jacobs.
FJ: First, thanks so much for speaking to me and scheduling a visit to Rehoboth. Have you been here before?
JS: I've never been to Delaware before and I'm looking forward to it.
FJ: Well, you'll meet some wonderful, caring people. And I understand you are meeting people all over the country. Besides the obvious tragedy of losing a son, how has your life changed since Matthew died?
JS: Well, I've become an advocate. I'm educated about the gay community now, more aware of the problems, much more outspoken and personally connected. When Matt came out to me, I knew very little about the gay community, and what I did know wasn't good; it wasn't even correct. I mean Wyoming is a sparsely populated state, the materials just weren't there to become educated. It was 1994, and the internet didn't even exist. It's not like I was in the Castro (in San Francisco) or had a gay and lesbian book store I could go to. We were very uninformed.
FJ: So now you are committed to being an advocate for the community, working to prevent hate crimes.
JS: Yes, and I'm staying here while my husband still works overseas. It's a sacrifice for us, but it's worth it to work with the Matt Shepard Foundation.
FJ: Tell me about the Foundation.
JS: It's a little organization, with four employees, two in Denver and two in Caspar. We work to teach respect for everyone, not just gay people, but respect for various religions, races, and ethnicity along with gender identity. Right now we are doing a project called Small Bear, Big Dreams. It's a children's story, based on a book written by one of Matt's friends. We've expanded it and developed age-appropriate lessons for pre-schoolers through grade 12. If all children just learned to respect each other and everyone around them we wouldn't have hate crimes. The one word "respect" sums it all up.
FJ: And you are raising money for this particular project?
JS: Yes, that's why I am on a speaking tour right now. We need to finish up this educational supplement, get it published and then get it to the schools, churches, activity groups, wherever we can.
FJ: Where will you start with the distribution?
JS: In the middle of the country. I think that both coasts are way ahead in educating kids about respecting others for their beliefs and identities. I'll start in Wyoming first. We've only got 450,000 people in the entire state. But for the population, I think there is the same percentage of gay people in Wyoming as other states. They may not be out, but they are there. We have to teach respect.
FJ: I have seen the play The Laramie Project several times now, with the words of the people of Laramie about the death of your son. Was it a truthful representation of what happened?
JS: It's the most truthful thing out there; it was their own words and it let everyone know what people were thinking and feeling. It really wasn't about Matthew or about us, it was about everyone's reaction to the situation.
FJ: May I ask you about the recent 20-20 TV show controversy (note: the program interviewed the jailed killers and put forth a theory that Matthew Shepherd's death was not a hate crime), or would you rather not talk about it?
JS: Oh, I can tell you about it. It was all a lie. I'm not sure if that's too strong a word, but they didn't tell the truth, they never went to the trial transcript, they didn't have sources to back up anything that was said. Actually the people involved broke the law when they interviewed Aaron McKinney (note: as part of his sentence, he was never supposed to talk about the crime to the press). What happened was that the attorney for Russell Henderson was petitioning for a reduced sentence for his client and he contacted 20-20 and offered them the exclusive interview. I guess they had to concoct some kind of story to live up to the hype around the interview. It was just an unbalanced, untrue story, saying it was not a hate crime.
FJ: But then the PBS show In the Life took on 20-20, dissected the ABC-TV story, pointing out errors in fact and served as a rebuttal for you. How did that go?
JS: We had an opportunity to express our concerns about the 20-20 story to the producers at In The Life. Then they re-interviewed everyone who had been interviewed by 20-20 and did their own investigation into the situation. I think they did an excellent job and got the story right. Of course, we don't get In The Life on our one PBS station in Wyoming.
FJ: That's sad, but not surprising. Maybe the Matthew Shepherd Foundation can work to change that. In the meantime, our community will come together and try to raise funds for you to complete your current project.
JS: Yes, it's so important to get this anti-bullying campaign into the schools and to teach respect for all. We are all different but the same. That's all we want to teach.
FJ: Well Thank you for talking to our Letters readers and thank you for working so hard and so passionately for respect and equality for all.
JS: Thank you. I look forward to coming to Delaware!
Tickets: suggested $25-$100 are available by calling 303-830-7400.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 10 July 29, 2005