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Politically disappointed, eternally hopeful, Judy Shepard reflects on the last 25 years

President Barack Obama greets Louvon Harris, left, Betty Byrd Boatner, right, both sisters of James Byrd, Jr., and Judy Shepard, center, mother of Matthew Shepard, following his remarks at a reception commemorating the enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, in the East Room, of the White House, October 28, 2009.
Pete Souza
The White House
President Barack Obama greets Louvon Harris, left, Betty Byrd Boatner, right, both sisters of James Byrd, Jr., and Judy Shepard, center, mother of Matthew Shepard, following his remarks at a reception commemorating the enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, in the East Room, of the White House, October 28, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

In the 25 years since the death of her son, Judy Shepard has advocated on the national stage for LGBTQ acceptance. She pushed for and witnessed former President Barrack Obama’s signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Bird, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009.

Throughout the years, award-winning playwrights, directors and musicians have produced art grappling with the death of her son and what it has meant for the larger culture. Shepard spoke with Wyoming Public Radio’s Jeff Victor about Matthew’s legacy, the everyday reminders of his life and, despite everything, her hope for the future and for the next generation.

Jeff Victor: It's been 25 years since you lost your son. As we come up on that anniversary, what do you want people to be thinking about?

Judy Shepard: Well, I honestly thought, when we got into this work, that in 25 years, things would be fixed — things would be safe and equal, and that folks who were largely ignorant of the LGBTQ+ community would be educated, and understand that they're just people striving to survive just like everybody else. Nothing about them is different other than who they love. As my husband would say, ‘They're just as boring as everybody else.’

They're just people just trying to get by, and nothing about them affects anybody else. So it's this whole thing about legislating against them. And the hate crimes that are still happening — are just beyond me. So I am frustrated that we're not done. I am ecstatic that we have come this far. But there's just so much left to do. There's just so much left to do. We should have nationwide job protections, we should have nationwide rules about adoption and public accommodation and all the things that affect the community that — if you're not part of that community — don't even occur to you as being something you couldn't do. It's just unfathomable to me that we still, in today's world, think that just because you're gay, you're somehow less than. I just don't get it.

JV: I want to ask about that bigger picture in a moment. But I also wanted to know, in your own life, do you do anything around this anniversary or around Matthew's birthday each year? Do you have any sort of rituals like that?

JS: I wouldn't really call them rituals. Because in the work that we do, we still have Matt with us every day, so it’s not like we set a day aside to remember him. Everything we do reminds us we don't have him.

So our foundation, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, has a gala every year in October, around the day we lost Matt, to celebrate his life, but also to remind ourselves, we still have work to do. And on his birthday, since 2018, we go to the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. for an observance of his birthday with folks at the National Cathedral.

JV: I'm sure he feels ever present in your work. I've been working on a separate investigative project this summer, that's put me in contact with a lot of families in Wyoming who have lost a son. And so a good chunk of my summer has been traveling around the state like talking to them. And something that a lot of them have said to me is that it feels like they lost their son yesterday. Whether it was a year or two ago, whether it was a decade ago. The feeling has changed in some ways, but in other ways, it still feels fresh, and I'm wondering for you, does it feel like it's been 25 years?

JS: It does not. And I agree with your other interviewees. It feels very raw, still. Like yesterday, and some days like forever ago, that we've been without him. There's a famous quote by Rose Kennedy, which of course I can't quote exactly, but it's how the wound is always there. It just scabs over, and you build your life around it. So it never goes away. There's no such thing as closure. This is ever present in your mind. When you fix his favorite foods, or you hear his favorite music, or you come across something that reminds you of him — pictures from grade school or home movies or favorite movies, anything like that just brings it rushing back. And I am not prepared to deal with that surprise. So yeah, fresh.

JV: What is your relationship like with Wyoming now? Do you still live here?

JS: We do. My friends often asked me, ‘Why do we still live there, given the political climate?’ And it's like, well, if we leave, they win. Plus I was born here. I'm not sure I could live anywhere else. I'm not really what you call a lover of crowds. So Wyoming is perfect for me. You know, the sky is different. Everything about Wyoming is different. So yes, we still live here.

I will say that there has been a change in the way people think about us, I think, for some folks. I mean, some of our friends are like, ‘We think you should just stop talking. And just let it go.’ I can't do that. I have to make it right for Matt's friends. I have to try that. But when I would run into people at the grocery store, they would whisper to me, ‘Thank you for doing this work. I have a grandson or a nephew or cousin or something who's gay, and I appreciate all you're doing to make their world a better place.’ Now they say it to me out loud, which means other people can hear them, right? They don't write about it in the paper, they don't talk about it on TV. Apparently, they don't vote that way. But personally, to me, that's how they think of the work we're doing. If they can say it out loud, I view that as a victory. Politically, I'm very disappointed in our fellow Wyomingites that they continue to go down this path.

JV: Do you ever visit Laramie?

JS: We have friends in Laramie still. We did some things with the Shepherd Symposium a few years ago. Couple of different times. We've been there for university events, not a lot. Over the last 25 years, I could probably count on one hand the amount of times we've been there. I understand they're doing The Laramie Project this year. We were invited to come and in my head, I'm thinking, ‘You think this is where I want to be, on these days, is in Laramie?’ I do not want to be there then. Actually, Dennis and I had planned to retire there. University town, a town we both loved when we were students there. There's no way now I could go there.

JV: I think that's perfectly understandable. I've done a lot of coverage of the LGBTQ community in Laramie, specifically. And in some ways, I'd say they're doing better than ever. I've had the privilege of watching Laramie PrideFest grow from humble beginnings, like seven years ago, to something that really is like a citywide thing now. Likewise, we have an annual drag queen bingo that raises money for people in Wyoming living with HIV and AIDS. And they had a record year; they sold out all of their tickets in five hours.

There's a flipside to all of this, which I'll ask about in a moment, but I wanted to know what it's like for you to see, today, so many people feeling comfortable being out and open, when you know what your son went through in the 90s?

JS: I'm very glad they're not going through the same thing. I think we tend to forget that the 90s, even the late 90s, even the early 2000s, were filled with bad jokes, stereotypes. Really, the only thing that was common knowledge about the gay community was the AIDS pandemic. So there was a lot of unfounded fear and a lot of ignorance about what the gay community really was. Because people just didn't talk about it. All they knew was stereotypes. There was nothing of a positive nature told about the community until people of note began to come out and tell their stories like famous business people, or politicians, or athletes, or celebrities, musicians — until people that we all knew publicly began to tell their story. And we paid attention more. Corporations began to take care of their employees. It just was a lot more readily available… awareness.

Thank God for Will and Grace [the TV show]. I mean, inviting them into your living room, once a week, just opened so many doors. Unconsciously even, I think. Even though Will and Grace and Jeff and Karen were all stereotypes, right? They still acquainted the world in a larger way with the community and showed them there was nothing to be afraid of. Everybody knew a Jack, everybody knew a Will. It was all cool. But man, they changed, they changed a lot. Just in acquainting the viewing public at large with what the community could be like, and was funny and friendly and loving, and just people and I think got better, slowly, but it got better.

But it took people to come out and tell their stories, really, for people to understand. Even now, we still have folks who are afraid to come out and be who they are because of the current climate. But it's a scary thing when you are wondering, and fearful, that you may not be accepted by your coworkers or your family and friends, your friends at school. It's a very scary thing to always have that in the back of your mind. Even today.

JV: And even with that acceptance, obviously, like you said at the beginning, it's maybe not the world that you'd hoped for 25 years ago.

JS: No.

JV: We've seen a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills being introduced across the US, and passed into laws. Here in Wyoming, we passed the first anti-LGBTQ bill in almost 50 years, according to WyoFile. And of course, we still don't have a non-discrimination statute. And I know there was a push for one, after Matthew, that failed. What do you make of Wyoming still not having that non-discrimination statute, but also, instead seeing all of these other bills come through and start to be passed?

JS: Well, right alongside we've not had any anti-LGBT legislation passed in the legislature, have also not had any positive legislation go through the legislature. Still no hate crime laws at all, in the state of Wyoming. We’re known as the equality state. So come on. Now people call us the state of hate. What's up with that, right?

I am totally aware that certain avenues of the political world feel they have this moment in time when they can advance this hateful legislation, not just the Wyoming Legislature, but all the Republican-controlled legislatures. They feel this is their moment in the sun. Very much reminiscent of 2004, when they did the same thing about same-sex marriage — passed all this hateful legislation, preventing it from happening in their state. They knew it was going to happen. They tried to prevent it. They know they've lost this fight in the long run. So now they're just grasping at straws to make their point of view known. They're not going to win. They might win here and there. It’s temporary and will correct itself, federally, eventually, even if the states don't do it.

I am very disappointed in my fellow Wyomingites who feel like this is the way to go to discriminate against any of the citizens. Maybe they don't realize how hard it is to keep young people in Wyoming already, that we don't pass a non-discrimination so corporations won’t come here, that we don't have a friendly environment for all of their employees, that we wouldn't protect all of their employees, that we wouldn't welcome all of their employees here. It seems like a very bad business move to me. But that's just me. I am not in the legislature. I don't understand how they think this is a good thing to put forward this absolute verification that Wyoming is a place you do not want to come to.

Now even though they only passed one [anti-LGBTQ legislation], because we have thoughtful leaders in the House and the Senate, doesn't mean it won't happen next time. I know those bills are still hanging around out there in the shadows waiting to reappear. We have certain legislators who will die on this hill to make sure it gets done, unfortunately. But we'll wake up eventually — when the younger kids begin to vote. I think that Laramie itself is changing. In fact, a lot of communities around Wyoming have become more accepting by having Pride events. Maybe not parades, but festivals and events, because the younger generation wants that. They know what this world is like. That's what they want to see is acceptance. And because Laramie is a college town, of course, they've got a larger influx of folks bringing in their ideas of equality and acceptance with them. And that's what's gonna turn the tide. I just know it.

JV: So you're very hopeful then that youthful energy will prevail.

JS: Oh, yes, my gosh. Even before 2009, when the federal hate crime bill was signed, I would speak at colleges and those kids were mad. They were mad that anybody would dare think they were unequal in any way, shape, or form. And if they weren't part of the community, they were allies of the community. ‘You cannot treat my friends this way. You cannot treat my family this way.’ They're going to turn the tide for sure. They're going to become the business owners, the CEOs, the judges, your fire chief, your police chief, your banker, your pastor. These kids are the future. And they understand that acceptance of all people is the way of the future. That's how a country succeeds — acceptance of all its residents, including immigrants, people of color, gay women. If you're not a straight white, Christian male in the world today, you're in trouble.

JV: Alongside everything else that's been going on alongside these bills, there's also been an explosion of anti-LGBTQ violence. We're up to the point where dozens of trans people are murdered every year, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Here in the West, the Colorado Springs shooting last year was very scary to a lot of us living in the Mountain West. What's going through your head as you read or hear news about all of this fresh violence?

JS: Well, I'm old enough to remember when behaving this way, shouting epithets and hate language and hate violence, was socially unacceptable. I remember those days. They didn't last long, couple decades, maybe between Jim Crow and, let's say, 2016. Those decades, we began to realize that those kinds of stereotypes and violence in that way was socially unacceptable. And then in 2016, this very interesting phenomena began to happen, where all of a sudden, it was not just socially acceptable, it began to be encouraged. And our national political leaders, they just unmasked themselves and ran free, knowing there was going to be no repercussions for that.

And then the internet and social media and the ability to denigrate somebody anonymously, in the basement of your own, knowing you're not going to suffer any repercussions by saying something to someone that you would not ever say in person — just was fodder for the mill of everybody that wanted to express their hate, right out in public, knowing there would be no penalty to pay socially or legally.

And so the gay community began to suffer because the rhetoric reappeared, people of color, different religions. Violence against women just because they were women. All of it just reared its ugly head, once again. This phenomena in 2016 just let it loose. And we haven't figured out how to calm it back down so we can have a civilized society again. We will, we'll get there. But right now is very scary for anybody deemed different.

JV: You're hopeful for the future.

JS: Yes.

JV: Do you have any ideas, how we get through this time to that better place?

JS: Well, we have to stick together, all of us. All the marginalized communities have got to realize that if we work together, we can fix this, but we have to do it together. We can’t be sniping at each other about things about each other that we don't agree with. We have one thing in common. And that is: there is a larger community right now who doesn't want us to be here. And they are doing everything to marginalize us.

The only way to become good is to move forward in a positive way. And the only way to do that is to accept everyone as being human beings. We have to start to care about each other again, and kindness and nurturing each other for success rather than tearing each other down for what anybody would deem different. It is unfathomable to me that that is still a thing — that that is still something people resort to. If I make someone feel less than me, then I will feel better. That doesn't work.

The only road I see out of this is an awakening that being unkind just doesn't work. We don't become a nation of prosperity and growth and success unless we take care of one another. We can have this divisive upper tier with extreme poverty at one end and extreme wealth at the other end, and people in the middle just striving to feed their families. That doesn't work either. There's gotta be a way to do this. And I really feel like we were on the path to do that until the phenomena of 2016. And we will come out of it, but man, it’s going to take some time. It's going to take some time. Patience. We just have to be patient and resilient and understand that things will become better. They just will. Because the younger generation, that's what they want. And they will get it.

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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