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“It's always on your mind”: Judy Shepard talks about her son’s death, LGBTQ+ rights in Wyoming

A slightly blurry close up of a blonde boy's face.
Matthew Shepard Foundation

Judy Shepard’s son, Matthew, was killed more than 25 years ago in an anti-gay hate crime.

Now, Shepard — a long time Wyomingite and advocate for LGBTQ+ rights — has received the highest civilian honor in the U.S.: the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Wyoming Public Radio’s Chris Clements spoke to Shepard about the award and the work Wyoming still needs to do to prevent the kind of violence that led to her son’s death.

Editor’s Note: This transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Chris Clements: So, Judy, how did you react when you got the news that you'd received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for your work?

Judy Shepard: I got a call from the First Lady's office. And it was a surprise. As you can imagine, it was pretty overwhelming. [I’m] pretty sure I cried a few tears. It really hit home. The thing is, I never feel like I deserve it because this isn't a career I set out to do. And there's many, many who have. So for me, it's sort of a mixed blessing. I greatly appreciate that the president takes an interest in the work that we do, and we've known each other a long time, since Matt first was killed. Pres. [Joe] Biden was on the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1999, and I testified before that committee and that's when I first met him. So he was aware of us, and I appreciate his remembering.

CC: What does it mean to you that you've received this award? I mean, it's the highest award possible for a [civilian] in the U.S. How does that land with you?

JS: Well, it's a combination of humbling and honoring. I thought I was going to be really upset when they did the presentation. But when I saw the other people also being honored, like, ‘Oh, they're A-listers. I'm cool. I'm good.’ We're all good here. It was a big moment.

CC: It's been more than 25 years since Matthew, your son, was tortured and killed for being gay. What do you think about the current state of hate against LGBTQ+ people in Wyoming?

JS: Hardly anybody lives here, right? And if you're different at all, you are immediately noticed. The violence per capita, I don't think is any higher in Wyoming, but it also hasn't [drastically] changed. Wyoming still doesn't have a hate crime law. It’s very discouraging that the state of Wyoming, right after Matt was killed, had the opportunity to become a leader in this field and ran away. It’s very discouraging. But the level of hate nationwide and even worldwide against the [LGBTQ+] community is frightening and infuriating because we were on such a good path. We're back on the path, I think.

CC: There's another anniversary, also: the 15 year anniversary of the legislation that passed Congress in the wake of Matt's killing.

JS: I kind of think it’s probably not a coincidence that this is happening now. [Former Pres. Barack] Obama signed it into law in October of 2009. So this October will be 15 years since it was signed into law, a landmark case, the first time positive steps were taken for the community rather than trying to take things away from them or, you know, deny them rights. So that was quite the experience. Actually, that was right on par with the honor, the award.

CC: When you began your advocacy work, did you anticipate it resonating with so many Americans and Wyomingites?

JS: I did not. I didn't. We started a foundation in Matt's name six weeks after he passed because people had been sending us money and I didn't know what to do with it. So we started this nonprofit. I thought maybe we can help Matt's friends or his peers have a better life. We thought two years, three years max, people move on from one terrible thing to another. I had no idea it was going to last this long, or that Matt's story would resonate with such a large, worldwide audience. I guess that was just the timing. And, you know, I can't explain it. But we didn't think it was gonna last this long, for sure.

CC: The grieving process – I know that it can take decades before things [to] become clear or change. I just wanted to ask how you've been dealing with what happened after so many years?

JS: There's no such thing as closure or moving on. It's always in your mind. Even when we talk about Matt, it's hard to remember certain things. I try not to visualize things when I'm talking about it. It's just as raw now as it was then. Rose Kennedy has this great quote about building your life around the scar tissue of an incident – she had many of those incidents. And I think that's what we've done. Your life is different. But the pain doesn't change. Your life is just different now.

CC: I don't know if you've heard about the latest with the state Legislature slashing the budget of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the University of Wyoming. Part of that includes the Matthew Shepard Symposium [that you started]. There's sort of this renewed push to eliminate those types of programs. What do you think about that?

JS: I'm really unhappy about it. But to tell you the truth, I'm not surprised based on who is in the Legislature now. We have elected folks who are not even true libertarians or Republicans, I don't know what they are. They're people who want chaos. Well, I'm not surprised. I am heartbroken that this is happening. All the things that make us better people – to learn about other people – might be denied now to students, and I think it's a disaster and heartbreaking all around.

CC: And you're about to head out with the U.S. State Department. Where are you going, Judy?

JS: I’m going to Australia, Singapore, Fiji and New Zealand.

CC: And is that part of what happens when you receive that award, or is it separate?

JS: It is separate. We started doing State Department trips in the Obama administration. We did several then. I'm getting a little long in the tooth to be doing them [still], quite frankly. But they're really fun. And we learn a lot and it is heartbreaking, but also heartwarming that those folks know Matt’s story.

CC: Are you going to be speaking at different events when you're out there?

JS: Yeah, each post, each embassy organizes community meetings. There's a couple of them that are showing the documentary about Matt, “Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine.” We will be meeting with the embassy staff [and] LGBTQ organizations in those countries. In Singapore, it's not illegal anymore, but it's also not 100 percent welcome. Fiji is very much a missionary-ized place to be. So it's very right-wing, conservative, Christian. New Zealand and Australia both are ahead of us in these rights. So I'm interested in learning from them, but they're also not 100 percent there either, yet. So it's an educational trip on both sides.

CC: Well, thank you so much for joining me today, Judy.

JS: Thanks. Bye, Chris.

CC: Judy Shepard is the founder of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an LGBTQ+ nonprofit organization headquartered in Casper.

This reporting was made possible by a grant from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting, supporting state government coverage in the state. Wyoming Public Media and Jackson Hole Community Radio are partnering to cover state issues both on air and online.

Chris Clements is a state government reporter and digital media specialist for Wyoming Public Media based in Laramie. He came to WPM from KSJD Radio in Cortez, Colorado, where he reported on Indigenous affairs, drought, and local politics in the Four Corners region. Before that, he graduated with a degree in English (Creative Writing) from Arizona State University. Chris's news stories have been featured on KUNC, NPR newscasts, and National Native News, among others.
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