LGBTQ advocate parents of Matthew Shepard keep their son’s legacy alive

By Danny Karel

Councilman Mike Bonin presented Judy and Dennis Shepard, founders of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, with a certificate of recognition from the city of L.A.
Photo by Ted Soqui

Twenty years ago, on a frozen morning in Laramie, Wyoming, a cyclist came upon the body of a brutally beaten young man strapped to a fence and left for dead. He was rushed to a hospital, but his injuries were severe. He died six days later after failing to recover from a coma.

The murder of Matthew Shepard became an international story. The crime, an act of anti-gay violence, forced a national reckoning with LGBTQ hostility and inspired the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed by President Obama in 2009. It was heralded as the first major piece of federal gay-rights legislation – a necessary expansion of the 1969 federal hate-crime law.

On a recent Saturday morning, Dennis and Judy Shepard, parents of Matthew Shepard, were invited to speak at the LMU campus. Since the death of their son, they’ve traveled extensively on behalf of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an education and advocacy nonprofit they founded in the wake of the tragedy.

They were guests of the Rotary Club, a century-old, invite-only service organization. It’s members, known as Rotarians, are mostly business and community leaders. Several dozen gathered in the courtyard outside of Murphy Recital Hall, chatting in small groups and awaiting the arrival of the Shepards. The day’s forum was titled “Erase Hate, Foster Acceptance.” On a table beside the entrance were stacks of fliers, printed with Matthew’s smiling portrait in black and white.

When the Shepards arrived, Rotary members filed into the mid-size auditorium. A bouquet of colorful flowers fronted a center stage podium. It was Dec. 1, the morning of what would have been Matthew’s forty-second birthday.

Mrs. Shepard, dressed in a black and white stripped blouse, was the first to speak. She is a head shorter than her husband and emanates warmth. Unlike Mr. Shepard, a career safety officer for Saudi Aramco, she doesn’t have any professional training in public speaking. If she did not explicitly state this in her introduction, her audiences would never know.

“It’s okay to laugh,” she began. She gestured to Mr. Shepard, standing behind her, hands crossed in a black suit. “We’re just plain people from Wyoming, but sometimes we say something funny.” And she did. On several occasions, a well-timed punchline sent the Rotarians into fits. She leveraged these moments to introduce life-affirming messages. “You just need to be you,” she said. “Life is short – buy the shoes, eat the cake.”

As a public speaker, Mr. Shepard is more measured. He uses silence to build tension and speaks without mincing words. “There’s no more respect in this country,” he said, which was met with hoots of agreement. “As a father, I’m pissed. Tell me why in the hell my straight son and my gay son don’t have the same rights?”

He encouraged the room to contact their local politicians and “hold their feet to the fire,” and praised the activism of Parkland students, who organized The March for Our Lives earlier this year. “They’re this generation’s Vietnam War protestors.”

Then, for several emotional minutes, he reflected on Matthew’s character. He was precocious and multilingual, a friendly extrovert who was obsessed with politics. As a child, he could name his local elected officials and where they stood on different issues. “My question has always been,” Mr. Shepard intoned, “what would he have become?”

After receiving a standing ovation, Councilman Mike Bonin awarded the Shepards a certificate of recognition from the city of Los Angeles. The Rotary district governor affixed them with honorary pins.

“I knew his story,” said Lisa Schwab, a Rotarian since 2005. “But to hear about his ambitions and accomplishments, it made it so much deeper. This wasn’t just some kid from Wyoming – this was a man with heart and vision.”

When the forum broke for lunch, there was a chance to speak with the Shepards privately. They’ve had a busy year. On Oct. 26, Matthew’s ashes were interred at the Washington National Cathedral in D.C., alongside historic figures and a former president. The Smithsonian recently came by their house to collect items for their archives.

“Telling the story over and over again, you just sort of learn to compartmentalize,” Mrs. Shepard said, sitting on a bench beside the lunch buffet. “I try to tell it without emotion because I don’t want to cry in front of anyone. I’m afraid they’ll stop listening to me.”

During the Obama administration, the Shepards shared their story in 25 different countries. They toured on a State Department mandate, lecturing about bullying and bigotry while helping establish safe spaces for LGBTQ communities around the world.

“When Trump was elected along with Mike Pence – a well-known enemy of the gay community – we knew that all the work we were doing with the Obama administration was going to stop,” said Mrs. Shepard.

Since the 2016 election, U.S. embassies and consulates have stopped inviting LGBTQ advocates like her and her husband to speak, observed Mrs. Shepard. During this time, the rate of reported and unreported hate crimes has also skyrocketed. Against this backdrop, Mrs. Shepard insists that the work of the Matthew Shepard Foundation has never been more important.

Mr. Shepard, who holds an emeritus position at the foundation and continues to travel with Mrs. Shepard as a speaker and educator, reiterated the importance of their work.

“It’s going to take a personal experience to make some people open up their mind a little more. Maybe their son or daughter or favorite brother is part of the LGBTQ community,” he said. “There are people who need to hear from somebody who supports them and who believes in them and who wants them to succeed.”