The reluctant activist

Judy Shepard talks about her struggles to accept her son Matthew's homosexuality, his brutal murder and the unwanted celebrity she decided to use on behalf of gay rights.

Published October 15, 1999 8:30AM (EDT)

Judy Shepard tried to resist the unwanted celebrity her son Matthew's brutal murder thrust upon her last October. But after months of quiet grieving, she researched gay rights activist groups, and approached four targeted groups in May.

"I think maybe I could do something to help you," she recalls saying. "I have a voice now -- people seem to want to hear what I have to say."

And indeed they do. This unlikely housewife from Wyoming has grabbed the media spotlight, with a raft of projects timed to coincide with the anniversary of her son's killing, and the capital murder trial of his accused killer, Aaron McKinney, here in Laramie. Shepard has just completed a speaking tour, she headlined the premiere of the documentary "Journey to a Hate Free Millennium," and she also taped three public service announcements produced by the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network

The GLSEN spot began heavy rotation on MTV last week, reaching 30 to 45 million youth, according to the network. Judy Shepard is spliced between shots of students shouting "homo," "faggot" and "queer," and Matthew's picture followed by the words "murdered / because he was gay / end / hate." In the spot she appears timid, emotional and vulnerable, exactly as she comes off in person: "The next time you use words like these, think about what they really mean."

Shepard sat down with Salon News this week to discuss her struggles to accept her son's sexuality, her conflicted feelings about his status as gay-bashing poster boy, and the impact his death has made on progress toward gay acceptance. As an activist, her objectives seem primarily cultural rather than political -- she talks about equal treatment rather than equal rights, for instance. And though she's appealed to Congress to pass hate crimes legislation, most of her efforts have been channeled into humanizing gays and changing cultural attitudes, primarily among kids.

"I think education is where we have to start," she said. "Kids go to school to learn how to behave in society. There's a way you behave at home, and then there's a way you behave with everybody else. And if we don't start doing that in the schools soon, it's harder to do as an adult.

"GLSEN is a wonderful way to do it," Shepard continued, "because not only do they incorporate the problems that gay children face, but the problems that all children face in being talked about in school."

GLSEN reports its membership as 30 to 35 percent straight, the remainder gay. The group has conducted teacher trainings in several thousand schools over the past five years, but Shepard's death has dramatically improved access. "Five years ago it was incredibly difficult to get into the schools," GLSEN spokesman Jim Anderson said. "Now, schools are calling us."

"I think what it's done is make the teachers and administrators more aware of the problem," Shepard said. "But it's a slow process. School boards are notoriously conservative and set in their ways, and don't want to do anything, especially open the door to the least bit of controversy."

A handful of large states have begun to make schools take violence against gays seriously. Two weeks ago, Gov. Gray Davis signed the California Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act, making California the fourth state to extend protections based on sexual orientation to students in its public schools.

Another entry point has been students themselves, who have organized gay-straight alliance groups in nearly 500 schools. That number has nearly doubled in the past year, Anderson said, with organizers repeatedly citing Shepard's murder as the galvanizing event. "I think because he was young, and his murderers were young, people made a connection," Anderson said.

Late last month, GLSEN released its first "school climate" survey, conducted among 496 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students across 32 states. Ninety-one percent reported hearing words like "faggot," "dyke," or "queer" regularly at school, 69 percent experienced direct verbal harassment and 24 percent suffered physical harassment. Far more troubling was that more than a third heard those remarks from faculty or staff, and that their peers were actually more likely than faculty or staff to intervene.

"I sort of get the feeling that teachers and administrators feel that they grew up with that teasing in school, and they made it through -- they treat it almost as a rite of passage," Shepard says. "We survived it, you can survive it. This is how you grow." She shakes her head incredulously: "Oh, ignorant people! Kids have scars -- from being teased because they had big ears. What kind of scars do they have from being teased because they're black, or gay?"

One of Shepard's biggest surprises has been the overwhelming support she's received from clergy and churches. "The mail they send me is like a hundred to one positive. It's incredible." She was especially surprised to learn that major churches like the Catholics and Episcopals have groups like Dignity and Integrity "to help their gay parishioners."

She's under no illusions about the overall tenor of parts of the Christian community, but she's optimistic about change. "There are people of the same church that feel that it's totally wrong [to reach out to gays]," she said. "But the fact that the churches have these organizations -- I think that's a great step forward. It was surprising how much positive mail said, 'We've never addressed this issue in our church before, but we address it now. We had a service for Matt, and we talk about it in our youth group, and we talk about it in our bible study.' That's great!"

One of the greatest indignities her family suffered since the murder was Rev. Fred Phelps' Baptist church picketing the funeral with signs picturing "Matt in Hell." They returned in April to picket the courthouse in Laramie when Shepard and her husband Dennis came to testify at the sentencing of Russell Henderson.

But that time prominent anti-gay crusader Rev. Louis Sheldon flew in from Washington to denounce Phelps, and local minister Rev. Ivan Byrd tore into Phelps' son in a high-decibel shouting match. When Phelps got set to return to town for the trial of Aaron McKinney, I decided to visit Byrd's tiny Redemption Chapel, and what I saw validated Judy Shepard's optimism about change.

I found a tiny little congregation huddled inside a reinforced trailer, on a dirt road alongside the switching yard of the U-Pac Railroad. Crumbling sidewalk in front, half-eaten deer carcass out back, fervent born-again congregation inside. In between the laying on of hands, and the dancing in the aisles praising the name of Jesus, the organist called out with a prayer request.

"I have a prayer request for the Baptist group from Kansas picketing Matthew Shepard," she declared. "Now I don't believe in homosexuality in any way, shape or form, but it's not up to us to condemn these people to hell."

"Amen!" came the response from the congregation. "Amen!" I saw disapproving head-shaking all around me. "It's horrible what they're doing," an elderly voice said behind me.

Shepard laughed at the back-handed compliment, when I told her about my visit to Redemption Chapel. But we agreed it was more tolerance than we could have hoped for a year ago. Not quite the reaction either of us would like, but at least these people are beginning to see gays as humans. What's the chance Russell Henderson or Aaron McKinney ever heard someone like Rev. Sheldon calling on Christians to treat gays compassionately?

"I do receive vitriolic mail from the Bible Belt," Shepard said matter-of-factly. "But I also got a lot of mail that says 'While I don't agree with the homosexual lifestyle, no one should do what they did to your son.' OK, I'll take that. I agree with you, that's a step forward."

But Judy Shepard is still uneasy about her son's emergence as worldwide gay-bashing poster boy. "I feel very conflicted about it, that's the best way of putting it," she said.

She resents some of the invasion of privacy, and closely guards access to her surviving son, which thus far the media has respected. But she's pleased with the awareness it's brought to the problem. "The gay community didn't need it, but the straight community needed it -- to see what gay people were going through."

She also worries about the backlash the gay sympathy seems to be generating in some circles. Jeffrey Montgomery, spokesman for the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, says the number of gay-bashings seems to be holding relatively constant, but "what we're seeing has been a marked and terrible increase in the severity, viciousness and brutality of the crimes."

"I think some people are feeling more threatened now," Judy said. "I'm just hoping it's a last gasp."

While Matthew's death forced millions of Americans to accept the reality of gay bashings, Shepard thinks many still believe it was an isolated incident. According to Montgomery, there have been 28 more gay-bashing murders since Matthew Shepard's bludgeoning, but only two of the most ghoulish received even modest national attention: Billy Jack Gaither had his throat slashed, his head cracked open by an ax-handle and his body burned on kerosene-soaked tires in Alabama in February; and two weeks later, Henry Edward Northington was decapitated, his severed head carried a mile from his body to be placed on a busy footbridge in a common gay cruising area.

Shepard was shocked to learn of those 28 murders. "We should all know about these deaths," she said. "It's unfortunate that the media isn't reporting them."

Thanks to her activism in the last six months, Judy Shepard has joined Betty DeGeneres, Ellen's mother, as a sort of National Gay Mom -- our picture of the quintessential straight mother comfortable with her gay child.

But Shepard smiles at that characterization, since she admits she had to struggle with Matt's sexuality. "There's a grief that comes because the life you expected isn't going to happen," she said. "But at the same time, you realize that, as a parent, you don't raise your children to be an extension of what you want. Letting go of that is really important. I think part of the problem lies with the fact that a lot of parents are ignorant of the gay community, and what it's really about. Because what they are exposed to is the stereotypical picture."

Shepard has also worked closely with Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) this past year, and found the universal concern among parents is fear for their children's safety. "It's a larger element for parents of gay kids, because the fear and ignorance and maybe even the hate manifests itself in a more violent way. There is a climate in this country that sort of makes it OK to be homophobic. The jokes and the stereotypical portrayal seem to make it OK. And that's what scares parents, because nobody says 'Don't do that; that's not right.' "

While it seemed strange that Shepard spent the anniversary of her son's death promoting a documentary about hate crimes, she actually asked the film's producers to debut it that day, knowing she would have to speak at the premiere, appear at the press conference and conduct interviews much of the day. She says she's used these opportunities as a way engage her grief productively. "If I didn't have a focus and a goal, I'd just be hiding under the covers."

Her husband Dennis has not been so lucky, she said. "As a family, we decided something needed to be done by us. And I was elected, because Dennis needed to work in Saudi Arabia," where
he is a safety engineer for an oil company. The differences in the way they've grieved were apparent at the April sentencing, where Judy and Dennis testified back to back. Judy was calm, betraying anger only at the very end, more sad at the loss of her boy than angry with the man who'd taken him from her. But Dennis was openly seething with fury.

She acknowledged the disparity. "As far as grieving at a different rate than Dennis, yes, I'm doing it in a different way because I talk about it all the time. Probably that puts us in different places, but I think that's a good thing, because we can share with each other what we're going through, and it gives us each a different purpose. He's also really frustrated at not being able to do more, because he's in Saudi Arabia. If he were in this country, he'd be right beside me doing everything I do. He's really frustrated about it."

Judge Barton Voight's gag order prohibits her from discussing the McKinney trial directly, but she said she's eager to put all the legal travails behind her. "It will be a relief to have it over. A relief yes, but not a resolution."

By Dave Cullen

Dave Cullen is a Denver writer working on a memoir, "In a Boy's Dream."

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