Judy and Dennis Shepard gave the keynote address at the Matthew Shepard Foundation- and Center on Halsted ( the Center )-sponsored hate-crimes summit and community reception May 10 at the Center.
The Shepards addressed approximately 50 law-enforcement officials, first responders and prosecutors on the importance of doing proper hate crimes investigations.
Dennis explained that when he would speak to law enforcement officials in the past he would say "I am glad you are here because you killed my son." He noted that the reason he said this was because in the past anytime anything happened to the LGBT community like vandalism, robberies and murders many law enforcement officers would say "Do not worry about it. That was just another fag."
"That encouraged open season on the LGBT community, " said Dennis.
Dennis noted that this mindset was what led to Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson murdering his son. He said that even to this day McKinney thinks he is a hero for killing Matthew.
"I am overwhelmed by the change that has occurred among law-enforcement officials and prosecutors who are recognizing that LGBT people are just average, hard-working folks who want a career and family and to retire and die of old age like everyone else," said Dennis. "The problem is that a lot of people still think the LGBT community does not have the right to exist. We had eight years of gaining rights for LGBT people under President Obama and now that we are losers we have to think about how we are going to win again. In order to win again politically law enforcement has to uphold the federal hate crimes law no matter who is in power."
In speaking about his son, Dennis said he was a "pain in the butt" kid who loved theater and politics and got involved with his first campaign when he was seven years old. Dennis explained that Matthew made friends with everyone he met and was not afraid of being an out and proud gay man.
"The changes that have been made because of Matt's death have a lot to do with the officers who were involved in investigating his beating and eventual death," said Dennis. "Dave O'Malley, who investigated the case, was a complete homophobe prior to the investigation and now he is an LGBT ally who marches in Pride Parades and travels the country to speak on the issue. This is what I am seeing with many law enforcement officers as I have traveled the country over the years."
"I am angry, worried and scared about the direction this country is going in right now," said Judy.
Judy spoke about bigotry coming from fear and ignorance and how the new political order is upending the progress that has been made on a variety of issues, including LGBTQ equality.
"This country used to be a place where we respected differences and reveled in it instead of discouraging it," said Judy. "So many people feel free to express their bigotry against what is different."
Judy explained that nobody is born with hate, but rather it is learned behavior:
"Being empathetic is innate," said Judy. "But being kind is not."
During the Q&A session, someone asked about who the murderers were. Judy said they were locals and high school drop-outs.
Another person inquired about the how they felt about the death penalty as an option and both Judy and Dennis said they left that decision up to the prosecutors.
In terms of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, Judy noted that it was a necessary law but the parameters need to be expanded including that reporting needs to be mandatory and money has to be allotted for training purposes.
When asked how long it took for them to find out about Matthew's murder, Judy said it was 40 hours since they were in Saudi Arabia ( where Dennis worked at the time ) when it happened.
As far as how the University of Wyoming president handled Matthew's death, Judy said he was amazing and Dennis noted that he set up a candlelight vigil for anyone who needed that space to mourn. Dennis explained that some LGBT professors and students who were not yet out of the closet quit the day Matthew's death was announced due to fears about their own safety in the town.
Another person asked how both feel about law enforcement on the whole. Judy said that there needs to be an LGBT liaison to deal with issues that arise between police officers and the public. Dennis said that of late it has mostly been a positive experience.
Finally, a person inquired about what the Shepards wanted the public to know about Matthew. Judy explained that he "was a kind, compassionate young man" while Dennis said the correct way to describe him was "my son who happened to be gay."
Following their address, the Shepards spoke with Windy City Times about their life's work, why they do these summits and the current political landscape.
Dennis noted that they do these summits to remind people, and especially law-enforcement officers, that it is not mandatory to report hate crimes and the need to push for that to be added to the law. He explained that according to the Houston police department the city did not have any hate crimes in the last five years and that is where the lack of mandatory reporting comes into play.
Judy said people need to be encouraged to report hate crimes when they see them no matter the venue but that in today's political climate people might be afraid to report anything to the police because they do not see them as protectors of the community. She noted that in states where you can still be fired for being LGBT it is challenging for people to report hate crimes over fears of retaliation.
Both Dennis and Judy said that during the Obama administration they got funding to go and do these summits by the Justice Department and U.S. Attorney's offices but that is not the case since Jan. 2017. These days they rely on donations to the foundation to continue this work which has cut down on the cities they visit each year.
They also implored everyone to vote in Nov. Dennis noted that anyone who did not vote in 2016 should keep their mouths shut.
"Shame on them," said Dennis. "They should not complain about what is happening because they had a chance to make a difference and they did not do it."
"People who did not vote actually caused Trump to be elected." said Judy.
They also said everyone needs to keep fighting and not suffer from burnout otherwise everyone's civil rights will be eroded.
The day also featured a variety of workshops, panels and presentations focused on the history and future of hate crimes both locally and nationally as well as state and federal hate crimes laws. Attendees also learned about significant hate crimes prosecutions and the Department of Justice's cold cases.
At the evening reception, where local LGBT community members met the Shepards and discussed the foundation's hate crime education programs, the Shepards announced that the foundation's official 20th anniversary event will take place Oct. 20 at the Bear to Make a Difference Gala in Denver. The foundation will be honoring Adam Rippon, Leslea Newman and the NGLCC at the gala.
See www.matthewshepard.org/ for more information .