A Commitment to Ending Hatred


Like old friends, they sat across the table from one another. She listened as he recalled his "fag-bashing" days as a neo-Nazi skinhead. He listened as she spoke about the death of her son, brutally murdered because he was gay. They were meeting this day face to face for the third time, brought together by a shared cause, a commitment to stamping out hatred and the violence it spawns.

She is Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who was lured from a Laramie bar on Oct. 6, 1998, by two men. He was robbed of $20, then beaten and tortured, and left to die lashed to a country fence in freezing temperatures. Still clinging to life when found 18 hours later by a pair of bikers, he died after five days without regaining consciousness.

The viciousness of his murder, a random attack the chief investigator said was fueled by homophobia, stunned the world. Strangers sent money to help defray medical expenses, but Judy and her husband, Dennis, decided to use the donations for a living tribute to their son. They established the Matthew Shepard Foundation, dedicated to combating hatred and celebrating diversity.

Judy Shepard spoke Saturday at the Skirball Cultural Center to students and educators, sharing the stage with reformed skinhead T.J. Leyden, now a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Task Force Against Hate.

As Shepard sat down with Leyden later for an interview, he admitted having been "a little nervous" at their first meeting in 1999 in conjunction with the making of the documentary "Journey to a Hate-Free Millennium," in which both appear. The film was produced by New Light Media, which presented the Skirball seminar in association with the Matthew Shepard Foundation and the Wiesenthal Center.

Leyden, on that first meeting with the Shepards, was unsure how they would react "to seeing somebody who'd actually perpetrated a hate crime." As a member of the white supremacist Hammerskins in Fontana and Redlands, he'd sought out gay men and had beaten and robbed them while calling them vile names. "The worst thing I've ever done in my life," he says today.

Judy, an articulate, soft-spoken 48-year-old, listens, then says, "It was important to Dennis and me to put him at ease and to show appreciation for his turnaround" five years ago after 15 years in the white power movement. "I can't tell you how proud I am of T.J. for turning his back." She describes their relationship as "very comfortable."

Although they come from very different places, she says, "We have a unique life situation that makes us closer. I think we're good friends." For his part, Leyden says of the Shepards, "They're the kind of parents I hope me and my wife can be." He has two sons, 7 and 9, from his first marriage--to a dedicated neo-Nazi--and two stepsons from his May marriage to Julie.

In their shared quest to stamp out hate, Shepard and Leyden, 35, speak frequently at high schools and colleges. In many public schools, Leyden observes, "It's 10 times easier for me to get in to speak" against racism than it is for Shepard to speak against homophobia, which raises a red flag with many educators.

This puzzles Shepard. "This is a hate issue. How can you be against a hate issue?" Still, battering down doors is not her style. "I don't sell myself. I go to the high schools that invite me."

There are invitations enough to campuses and organizations that, from mid-January until the end of April, she was at home in Casper, Wyo., for only nine days. She manages to sandwich in two to three trips a year to Saudi Arabia, where her husband works in the oil business, and he comes home once or twice a year. Of the tiring pace, she says, "I have to take advantage of the window I have," knowing that, in time, another horrible crime will shove Matthew Shepard from the public consciousness.

Shepard, in her quiet way, makes it clear that she does not want to be portrayed as a victim, but rather as a victim-activist. Ask her about her son's killers-Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, both of whom are serving two consecutive life sentences without possibility of parole-and she says, "I don't hate them. I'm through with them. I have only so much energy to pass around and I'm not going to give it to the haters."

Matthew was 18 when he came out to his mother, who had suspected for a long while that he was gay. She felt a profound sadness. "I questioned whether he was ever going to be happy. There's a grieving process" for the loss of "things that aren't going to happen." Then she set out to read everything she could about gays. "The message I try to give people is how just like everybody else they are."

Leyden listens, then says, "They're anybody and everybody, the people you like and the people you don't like ... cops, rednecks, yuppies, military professionals." His sons know about Matthew Shepard--"This young man touched lives." When Leyden's boys came home from elementary school using anti-gay slang words, he put a quick stop to it.

This day, Leyden, who once sported a Mohawk haircut but now wears a crew cut and a neatly trimmed red beard, brought his message to the seminar in a bam-bam style sprinkled with four-letter words and emphasized with thrusts of his heavily tattooed arms. It was his life story, the story of a man who had become "numb to violence" after 16 arrests, whose idea of a good time on Saturday night was to "beat the hell out of a rich [homosexual]."

The white power movement has labeled him a traitor and has posted "terminate on sight" threats against him on the Internet. Others have called him an opportunist, doubting the sincerity of his new mission. Shepard rejects that criticism: "He took on too much personal risk. And the passion-he couldn't do that unless he really felt it."

True, Leyden says, he won't speak at colleges unless paid, although he does at high schools. Why should he, he asks, when "two weeks later, they'll have [Nation of Islam leader] Louis Farrakhan or [former Ku Klux Klan leader] David Duke and pay them $5,000?"

Each in his or her own way, Judy Shepard and T.J. Leyden put a face to hate. He never killed anyone, he says. "Still, my victims are so vast. In a way, Judy is one of my victims." The kids he recruited to the white supremacy doctrine, he says, "they are just like the ones who killed her son." While speaking out now is "therapeutic," he says it "in no way lessens good Irish guilt."

Leyden brings a strong message, Shepard says, that "there's hope for everyone." Earlier, in the seminar, Shepard spoke of her journey in the aftermath of Matthew's death, of the decision by the family, which includes Matthew's younger brother, Logan, not to hide, but to speak out.

"It's not about Matt anymore," she said. "We can't help Matt anymore." Rather, it is about educating others. The nonprofit foundation is producing a documentary on homeless gay and lesbian youth and developing a curriculum for elementary school students "to teach dignity and respect."

By nature a "private, shy person," formerly a "stay-at-home mom," she has become a compelling public speaker. "I just have to think that [Matt] is up there helping me do this," she says. "There's a hole in my existence. There are days when I think I can't go on, [but] I know Matt would be very disappointed in me if I gave up." She adds, "You can't teach from the dark." So, "This is my new life," telling what it is to be "the victim who survives. I'm a mom with a story and a mom with an opinion."

She will be thrust into a larger spotlight in the fall when NBC airs "The Matthew Shepard Story," with Stockard Channing as Judy, Sam Waterston as Dennis and a young Canadian actor, Shane Meier, as Matthew. So far, says Shepard, a script consultant, it remains "true to the essence of who Matt was."

The watershed moment for Leyden, he says, was when his son Tommy, then 3, used a racial epithet to tell his dad that they shouldn't watch TV shows with black people in them. That, he said, was "the only time I've truly been afraid in my life"; afraid that his sons would turn out just like him. "I was the worst thing my kids could ever ask for in a father."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World