Judy Shepard spoke at Roosevelt University in Chicago Monday, October 16. Her son Matthew was murdered at age 21 in an anti-gay hate crime October 12, 1998. The presentation was not at all what I expected. I’m not sure what I expected. Perhaps I’m still grieving for Matt, and expected tears from his mother, or someone angry. But Judy Shepard told a soft, determined, calm, and, at times, humorous story.
She started by reading the victim impact statement which she first read at the sentencing hearing for Russell Henderson, one of the two men convicted in the murder of Matthew Shepard.
“I’ll never understand why anyone would hurt Matt,” Shepard said in the statement.
She then segued into a brief presentation on the importance of voting. Mrs. Shepard, a proud Democrat, spoke at length about life in Wyoming, a staunchly Republican state with a population of 450,000 people. Her tongue-in-cheek humor about Wyoming provided a window into her warm spirit, “People give the same answer when asked either why they live or do not live in Wyoming: ‘Because no one else lives there.'”
She came on stage after a brief film that spoke about two hate crimes: the murder of her son Matthew, and the murder of James Byrd, Jr. Mrs. Shepard said she felt it was important to speak about both because all crimes of hate are related.
This was not a person speaking in anger. While conveying her family’s pain seeing Matt in the hospital, hardly recognizable, she spoke about the unimaginable with strength. She seemed to draw strength from reading the victim impact statement, and conveyed strength as she continued to tell her story. She spoke about the importance of gays and lesbians coming out to family, friends, and co-workers. Telling one humorous anecdote, she recalled speaking to a 50 year old man who told her he was so touched by her talk that he finally came out to his mother. She laughed, “You mean she really didn’t know? Trust me, a mother knows.”
She spoke about Matt coming out to her at age 18. Her response was simple, “What took you so long to tell me?” Her husband Dennis took a bit longer to understand Matt’s coming out, but not much more. He was not present Monday, but his victim impact statement is worth thoughtful reflection.
Her story was about pain, forgiveness, and realizing that the pain continues for others; that racism continues, bigotry continues, hate continues.
The presentation was over too soon.
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