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Judy Shepard shares son's life at Center event
2010-10-06

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By Tully Satre

"Twelve years ago when Matt died, a lot of people woke up," said Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard. Oct. 12 marks the 12th anniversary of 21-year-old Matthew's brutal murder when he was tortured and left to die, tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyo.

Matthew has been on the mind of many in the gay community with the string of media reports on teenagers driven to suicide because of animosities towards their sexual orientation. "Things are still not right," Shepard said, "in the past four weeks there have been several incidents because someone was gay or perceived to be gay."

Judy Shepard was the keynote speaker Sept. 30 at Center on Halsted, as part of the organization's latest program, "H.E.A.L. Ourselves: Opening Eyes, Closing Wounds ( Healing, Engaging, Acting, Lifting ) "—and the event could not be more timely.

Shepard's speech was the highlight of this series of events geared towards, "celebrating advocacy against LGBT hate violence," as motivational speaker Greg Baird stated before introducing Illinois State Sen. John Cullerton.

Cullerton ( president of the Illinois State Senate and the chief sponsor of an LGBT-inclusive Illinois' hate-crime law in 1990 ) introduced Shepard as the evening's speaker, stating that, "There are no guarantees that our statues will change the opinions of the people … that's why we have people like Judy Shepard."

After a brief video clip splicing together the tragic stories of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. ( two infamous 1998 murders triggered by hate ) , Judy Shepard took to the stage amidst applause. With a series of props, including reading glasses ( "I recently joined AARP," Shepard joked ) and a fan ( "I am a woman of a certain age," she explained ) , Shepard had the packed Hoover-Leppen theatre in fits of laughter, lightening the serious tone of the evening.

Shortly after the tragic murder of her son, Judy Shepard started the Matthew Shepard Foundation to share Matthew's story in hopes of "replacing hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance."

The success of the organization has left its mark in the history of the gay-rights movement: Nearly a year ago and over a decade after Matthew's death, President Obama signed the "Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act," adding gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability to a federal hate-crime law.

"If you think we pass laws and it is all okay, well, it isn't," Shepard stated, "We still have problems and the key to solving those problems is to share our stories."

"Share our stories" became the mantra for the evening. "You think you can come out once and that you're done?" Shepard asked the crowd,  "Sorry you're not. That's not the case.

The gay community has made it clear that it wants change. That impatience has caused a lot of pressure on the White House, where Obama's administration has been battling with Congress to own up to the ideal of a free and equal country. Shepard had no problem addressing this frustration. "This is not something that President Obama can do alone," she explained, "Partisan politics has gone way overboard."

"If it has escaped anyone's attention here: it's an election year," Shepard continued. "When [ LGBT-supportive officials ] are elected you need to hold their feet to the fire to make sure that's what they do."

Shepard maintained her poise ( as much of the audience became emotional ) while reading, in full, the impact statement she wrote for the trial of her son's killer in 1999. "They learned that it was okay to hate," Shepard explained, "The only way we're going to get rid of those stereotypes is ya'll have got to tell your stories ... gay and straight. You need to make everyone understand that it is okay. It is who you are."

Shepard shared many stories about Matt from his coming out when he was 18 to his stubborn attitude, which Shepard recalled with a smile: "He loved to argue, even when you may have agreed with him." Shepard published a book in 2009 entitled The Meaning of Matthew, in which she shares stories about Matt's life and how it affected her family and the world the night he was murdered.

Shepard opened the floor to questions and comments. One audience member stated, "We wouldn't have a federal hate-crimes law without you," to roaring applause.

Shepard was questioned on a range of topics from homeless youth to religion. She briefly discussed the divide between religion and the gay community and held an intense conversation with one audience member tackling this issue.

Shepard shared a story about a gay couple who told her they had been attending a Catholic Church for 30 years although they were not made welcome by the congregation: No one would sit by them during mass or take communion after them, and they were never invited to any social events within the church. The couple, she explained, refused to find an affirming church "because," they asked, "how else will they understand?"

They make a good point, thought Shepard, emphasizing the importance of sharing and educating, "By voting, by speaking out, by being part of the system ... by telling your story."

Many points throughout the evening echoed the goals and visions of the Matthew Shepard Foundation of promoting diversity and replacing hate with compassion, a value that Shepard pointed out streamed from her Christian beliefs. "You are who you are and that's great because many people gay and straight never know who they are." Shepard continued to recognize the need for people to share their stories, "Don't waste 50 years of your life not sharing your life with people that you love."

Shepard concluded the evening with a classic Native American story about a fight between two wolves: one is evil ( full of anger and arrogance ) and the other is good ( full of peace and love ) —the one that wins? "The one you feed," quoted Shepard to a standing ovation.

More about the Matthew Shepard Foundation is at www.MatthewShepard.org; additional info about Matthew's Place ( for youth ) is at www.MatthewsPlace.com .


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