NEW ALBANY — More than 20 years ago, Judy Shepard and her family faced a devastating loss when her son, Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, was brutally beaten and left to die.
The murder led to a national conversation about LGBTQ rights and hate crimes legislation, and over the years, Matthew's mother has transformed her grief into activism for diversity and equal rights.
Shepard spoke Tuesday at Indiana University Southeast's Ogle Center to discuss her ongoing fight for equality and greater understanding of LGBTQ issues following her son's death. The talk was part of IUS's Common Experience program — the theme this year is "Tolerance and the Struggle for Human Rights in Communities," and the program is focused on the book/play "The Laramie Project," which is about the town of Laramie's response to Matthew's murder.
On Oct. 6, 1998, two men abducted Matthew and beat him repeatedly with a pistol. He was left to die on a wooden fence post on a prairie near Laramie, Wyo., where he remained for 18 hours before he was found and taken to the hospital. Five days later, he died from his injuries.
Shepard, along with her husband and Matthew's father, Dennis Shepard, formed the Matthew Shepard Foundation to carry on her son's legacy and advocate for LGBT rights, and they advocated for the passing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded the federal hate crime law to include crimes motivated by gender identity and sexual orientation. The legislation was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009.
IUS is presenting a number of other events related to the story of Matthew Shepard, including a Nov. 6 discussion of the books "The Laramie Project" and "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later" and the IU Southeast Theatre Department's production of "The Laramie Project" from Dec. 5-7 and Dec. 8.
At Tuesday's talk, Shepard emphasized that the fight for LGBTQ rights is far from finished. She can't help her son, but she hopes that by speaking about what happened to Matthew, she can help "another mother, another child and another family," she said.
"My goal tonight is to try to set you all on fire that we have the opportunity to make the world what we want it to be — what we think it should be," she said.
Shepard expressed her frustration with the current political climate, including her numerous concerns about the status of LGBTQ rights and the rise in reported hate crimes in the United States over the past few years. There are four states without hate crime legislation, including Wyoming, Arkansas, Georgia and South Carolina, and she noted that in Indiana, the recently-passed hate crimes legislation was "gutted" before it was signed by Gov. Eric Holcomb.
She also discussed issues such as LGBTQ discrimination in the workforce. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments on whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of sex, applies to people who are gay or transgender. Only 21 states — along with the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico — have laws protecting against sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in employment.
When Shepard began her activism years ago, the focus was on "moving from the world of tolerance to the world of acceptance, eventually to the world of embracing," but in its most basic form, it is truly about "thinking of each other as people [and] fellow human beings" and respecting LGBTQ people's right to simply be who they are, she said.
"Tolerance, in its truest sense is good, in that we're not going to single you out for being different, but you really don't tolerate people — you tolerate bad hair days, but you don't really tolerate people," she said. "That's unkind, I have come to think. Also, the word acceptance is not really right either, because why do you have to accept me? That still gives you the power."
During the talk, Shepard read from the victim impact statement she delivered in the courtroom during the sentencing in 1999. There was a hole in her life after her son's death as she realized she would never again "experience Matt’s laugh, his wonderful hugs, his stories [or] hear about his ambitions for the future," she said. Her advocacy is one way that she honors her son's memory.
"For all who ask what they can do for Matt and all the other victims of hate – my answer is to educate and bring understanding where you see hate and ignorance, bring light where you see darkness, bring freedom where there is fear, and begin to heal," she said.
Shepard said her message is one of compassion and kindness.
"This is a community action to take care of one another, bring each other up rather than tear each other down, to have a society that cares about everyone, not just the chosen few, not just the one percent, not just your neighbor who looks just like you or worships just like you or loves just like you," she said. "This is about taking care of everybody, because that is how the world works — that is how the world becomes safe. That's how we all prosper, is when we take care of one another, when there is compassion in our lives and a caring for our neighbor."