It has been 12 years since Judy Shepard suffered “a mother’s worst nightmare,” but she has lost none of her enthusiasm for the battle against hate crime.
Shepard, whose son was murdered because he was a homosexual, brought her message to an audience of approximately 300 on February 21 in the Givens Performing Arts Center at UNC Pembroke.
She and her husband, Dennis, founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation to fight hate crimes of all kinds. As part of UNCP’s Distinguished Speaker Series, she read from the victim’s impact statement that she read in 1999 before sentencing of the two men who murdered her Matthew.
Although she stopped only once to collect herself, it was a mother’s story.
“Go back in time with me to Laramie, Wyo.,” Shepard said. “(Matthew) was a loving, vibrant and kind young man.
“You need to see him as we did to understand our loss,” she continued, “He had such hopes for the future. There are no words to express how much I miss him.”
Matthew was beaten and left tied to a fence in rural Wyoming. He died several days later with his family beside him.
“When he died, there was a kind of relief that his suffering had ended,” his mother said, “but an understanding that our grief was just beginning.”
Created to honor Matthew’s memory, the Foundation seeks to “replace hate with understanding and foster compassion and acceptance” through outreach and advocacy and continuing to tell Matthew’s story.
Shepard encouraged members of the audience to stand up and be heard.
“It’s time to change hate; bullying is at an all-time high and at an all-time vicious level,” she said. “Making the victim responsible for the crime by telling them to not act so gay (is unacceptable).
“And by the way, there is no such thing as an innocent bystander,” Shepard said. “You need to take responsibility for your community. Please, please do that.”
Shepard advocated for change in employment and marriage laws.
“Same sex couples are not going to destabilize society,” she said. “If you don’t agree with gay marriage, don’t have one.”
Shepard said her son told her he was gay at age 18. Her response was “what took you so long?”
“Matt was eight when I knew,” she said. “He just seemed different some how.
“He asked me please don’t tell his dad, and I agreed but then told Dennis anyway,” Shepard said.
Overcoming denial was difficult for both parents, she said.
“He was just that same as he was before, with the same dreams to be loved and to love in return,” she said.
Shepard encouraged taking personal stories public to educate about society against teaching hate against gays and other minorities.
“Come out at work and talk about it,” she said. “It’s the only way they are going to understand it.”
As her talk concluded, Shepard returned to the murder of her son.
“Do I blame the two men for murdering my son?” she asked. “No, I do not. I blame society for creating the environment that made it okay to do that.”
Shepard took questions and signed books for all comers. Published in 2009, her memoir is titled “The Meaning of Matthew.”
Matthew’s story was made into an HBO movie, and a play titled “The Laramie Project,” that was staged by UNCP’s University Theatre in 2010.
The Distinguished Speaker Series will conclude on April 26 with actor Hill Harper at 7:30 p.m. The public is welcome and the series is free.