She is fine-featured and wary. Mostly wary. Judy Shepard, the reluctant activist, is still coming to terms with this business of public revelation, public grief and public debate, a role thrust upon her after the brutal murder of her son last October.
Matthew Shepard’s death in Laramie became a nexus for hot-button issues of the day: gay rights, hate crimes and the death penalty among them. After watching in silent horror since then as her son’s death has been co-opted by special-interest groups she’d never heard of, she has been seeking to set the record straight--talking about her son, blemishes and all--hoping, perhaps, to make a difference.
“Having always been a very private person and a very private family, who has never been in the public eye, it’s been a little scary,” Judy Shepard said, sitting down to a rare interview. She lives in Saudi Arabia, where her husband, Dennis, works for Aramco, the government-owned oil company, but for months she has been camping out in a hotel room in Casper. She was in Jackson recently, visiting her brother.
“When we found out that [the murder] was in the national press, I got physically ill,” she said, speaking in a barely audible voice. “It was every mother’s worst nightmare out there for everyone’s perusal and prurient interest.
“The one thing I’ve learned is that my little voice is the only thing I have working for me. I am not an assertive person. I’m pretty shy. But I have realized that people would listen to what I had to say. There can be a period in time where I can make a difference. I feel compelled to do this for Matt. I feel compelled to do this for other parents. I feel compelled to do this for myself, because it helps to focus. Without it, I think I would just be in my bed.”
What Judy Shepard is doing is lending her support to causes that would have meant something to her son, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming who was singled out for robbery and murder because he was gay. She recently taped two public service announcements for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay and lesbian political organization. The commercials will begin to air next month.
Judy Shepard, 47, who calls herself an “ordinary, average, middle-class mom,” has embarked on a path for which her life as stay-at-home mother did not prepare her. She has established the Matthew Shepard Foundation to foster tolerance and diversity; although it is currently little more than a mission statement, she said her idea is to offer children a haven.
“Our intention is to aid groups that otherwise would not get funding,” she said. “The goal is to help kids, not necessarily gay kids, but all kids. People forget that kids need places to be together, places they can feel safe.”
Safety issues have weighed heavily on her mind since her son’s death. His killers selected him in part because he was diminutive--5 feet, 2 inches--and also because of his fearlessness with strangers. Authorities allege that Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney spotted him in a Laramie bar, lured him to a remote spot and beat him, leaving him tied to a fence for 18 hours. He bled profusely during a freezing night and was found by a bicyclist the evening of the next day. He was hospitalized but never regained consciousness.
Henderson has pleaded guilty to murder. Jury selection in McKinney’s trial begins in Laramie on Oct. 11, a day before the anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death.
It was not the first time in his life that her son had been attacked. He was raped in Morocco as a high school student and years later beaten by a man who claimed her son had made advances toward him, she said. Judy Shepard said she was aware of gay-bashing and worried for her son because “sometimes his sense about people was the right one and sometimes it was off.”
“He was always very small, but he never let that affect the way he would speak his mind,” she said. “If he saw an injustice, he was right there in the middle of it--a small child, but big vocally. I’d think, ‘Oh, jeez, somebody’s going to knock him. He’s going to smart off to someone.’ He really had a talent for that. I did worry about his safety. He was unafraid. I don’t ever remember Matt being afraid of anything most of his life.”
Matthew Shepard began high school in Casper, then moved with his family to Saudi Arabia. He graduated from an international high school in Switzerland after traveling the world on class trips, learning three languages and developing his interest in politics and humanitarian causes.
Judy Shepard speaks of her son with a parent’s pride and describes him with an urgency, as if she could conjure him with words.
“We talked about him being gay and finding a gay community,” she said. Her son came out to his family while he was in high school. The parents suggested that he attend the University of Wyoming--their alma mater--because Laramie is a small, friendly town and because the campus has a gay and lesbian group.
“I knew there was a safety being in a gay community, that there’s physical safety in numbers. I’ve said that he had the walk of a victim. He had an air of, ‘I’m open to speaking to you. You can hurt me if you want. You can pick on me and get away with it.’ I thought that if I could see it, other people could see it. It worried me.”
She always ended their frequent phone conversations with: “I love you. Be smart and be safe.”
The parents’ worst fears were realized when they received a phone call in the middle of the night telling them their son had been attacked. It took the Shepards nearly two days of traveling from Saudi Arabia to get to the hospital in Fort Collins, Colo., where their son lay in a coma. He had been so savagely beaten that Judy Shepard recognized him only by a distinctive bump on his ear.
Most of that time was a daze for the family members, who had to wade through media encampments, supporters and protesters to gain entrance to the hospital and attend the funeral. It was only weeks later, after she began to read some of the news accounts and letters she received, that Judy Shepard realized her son was being made a martyr by some. Much was made of his having been lashed spread-eagled to a fence--crucified, as some put it--and hundreds of Web sites were devoted to this “lost innocent,” this perfect college freshman.
It wasn’t the son she knew. She understood immediately that if her son could be deified around the world, he could just as easily be demonized.
“It was really important to tell the truth right away,” she said. “He was not a perfect individual. He had problems. He made mistakes. What I feared was the people would see him as perfect and then those things would come out and then they would say, ‘Forget it, we don’t care now.’ I knew that other young gay kids were struggling. It just seemed important to tell the truth for a lot of reasons.”
What emerged after his death was a portrait of a young man still struggling with life’s bumps. Matthew Shepard was taking drugs for depression and anxiety, he drank too much and, in his defiance of fear, may have been reckless in trusting others.
Although she was prepared for the inevitable backlash about her son’s being gay, she did not anticipate the deluge of hate that would cascade down after the murder. For every Web site memorializing her son, there was another gleefully celebrating his death. His funeral was picketed by a small number of anti-gay protesters, and at least one Web site invites browsers to click and hear his screams from hell.
Judy Shepard has seen the Web sites. “To develop anger in response to them--I just don’t have enough emotions to go around,” she said. “I know what they’ve done to Matt. I just think they are ignorant. I pity them.”
It’s the same “dead feeling” she harbors for Henderson and McKinney. She faced Henderson at his hearing and said, “I know it sounds strange to people, but I truly feel nothing for them--no hate, no anger. It’s a void.”
She will attend every moment of McKinney’s trial and has put her own grief process on hold until afterward. “I just don’t think I could hold it together if I was going through that kind of introspection.”
Using Her Platform
Shepard prefers to spend time with the foundation and to respond to the 10,000 pieces of mail and more than 80,000 e-mail messages she has received--and to use her tiny platform to prevent other hate crimes. She has testified before Congress in support of the federal hate crimes bill, which has passed the Senate and is stalled in the House. The bill would extend federal protections to sexual orientation, gender and disability.
The fledgling activist is ready. Judy Shepard is determined that her voice, tiny but resolute, will be heard.
“I’m not really sure anyone is going to listen to me, but it gives a face to a community of grief and struggle. And it gives a Middle American face for Middle America to see the problem. Whether they actually hear the words I say and agree with them, I don’t know. But I think by putting myself out there and saying, ‘This happened to my son; please don’t let it happen to anyone else,’ will make a difference for a while. I hope it does.”