Wednesday, 9 September 2009

USA Today: 11 years after Shepard's death, mom pushes for hate-crime law


Matthew Shepard
Matthew Shepard Foundation
CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Judy Shepard steps to the ballroom lectern, dangles her reading glasses and waves a folding fan. Necessities, she explains, for "a woman of a certain age." The state employees chuckle.

Soon they — and their guest speaker — will weep.

The story of how Shepard's son Matthew was beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead near Laramie on a clear October night in 1998 is well-known. The murder of the college student sparked protests, vigils and calls for legal protections for victims of anti-gay violence. Shepard says she became "a mom on a mission."

Some 500 speeches later, Shepard has rarely cried in public, but on this day, she does.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," she says as she clears her throat. "There's a hole in my life," she sobs. "Deep breath, everybody." The 150 people in the room inhale as one.

One of the most approachable faces of the gay rights movement may finally see her mission fulfilled this year as Congress moves closer to passing the hate-crimes bill she has lobbied for a decade to pass. The Matthew Shepard Act would extend federal protections to people victimized because of sexual orientation. To give lawmakers an added push, Shepard begins a tour this month to promote her book, The Meaning of Matthew: My Son's Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed.

It is about the event that transformed her life. It's also about how Matthew dressed up as Dolly Parton in the third grade. How he was raped on a school trip in Morocco. How depression plagued him. How she learned he was HIV-positive when he died. How Matt's violent death shook her family and those of gays and lesbians around the world.

Since he died, at least two dozen gay men and lesbians have been killed in hate-motivated crimes, according to the FBI. The bill would make it easier for the Justice Department to step in when local police are unable or unwilling to investigate.

Each house of Congress has approved the bill five times since 1997, only to drop it from final measures under pressure from conservatives who argued that the law would censor free speech. "People should be punished for their actions and not their thoughts," says Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council.

Now, a Democratic-controlled Congress and a willing President Obama offer the best odds so far to amend the law.

"This is by far the best chance they've had" to pass a hate-crimes bill, agrees Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. He says Obama, who has been criticized by gay activists for taking a go-slow approach to their issues, has "enough political capital" to push through a bill.

Shepard isn't so sure.

"I'm hoping so, but I hoped so two years ago," she says. And if it doesn't? "I'll just start over."

Her book and the Capitol Hill negotiations are part of a renewed focus on anti-gay violence.

The Laramie Project —10 Years Later will debut in more than 100 theaters in all 50 states and seven countries Oct. 12, the 11th anniversary of Shepard's death. The sequel to the play about the murder is based on new interviews with people in Laramie and with Aaron McKinney, one of two men convicted in the killing.

Matthew's last moments

Dave O'Malley wheels his Ford Mustang up to JJ's Bar in downtown Laramie. It used to be called the Fireside Lounge and was the last place Matthew Shepard was seen alive.

O'Malley, a retired cop who helped lead the murder investigation, drives east to retrace the route taken by McKinney and his friend Russell Henderson. According to the defendants' testimony, they met Shepard at the bar and, pretending to be gay, offered him a ride just after midnight on Oct. 7, 1998.

At the edge of an upscale subdivision, O'Malley stops at a barrier saying "Road Closed." He points to a narrow path that bends behind a hill. That's where Matthew was found tied to a split-rail fence. He had been there 18 hours.

O'Malley, a self-described "homophobic" cop turned civil rights campaigner for gays, says he's heard people talk of the incident as a drug deal gone bad. He just shakes his head. They didn't see Matt's hairs embedded in the wooden butt of McKinney's .357 Magnum pistol after the student — whose autopsy report noted he stood 5-foot-3 and weighed 105 pounds — was hit at least 18 times.

"To me, that's hatred," he says.

Back at JJ's, the happy hour regulars don't see it that way.

"Locals are pretty much in agreement it wasn't a hate crime" but a robbery or drug-related, says Darla Woodard, 49, a factory worker sitting at the bar where Shepard had his last drink.

Woodard says of Matthew's mother: "I don't believe she knows the whole story."

Judy Shepard says such "urban myths" about the killers, serving two consecutive life sentences, ignore their confessions and other evidence. "They're making a story up so they don't have to face the facts of what really happened in their town," she says.

A 'family decision'

Dennis Shepard, a lanky oil industry engineer home for a break from his work in the Middle East, leans down to kiss his wife of 36 years before leaving to run errands. He declines an interview.

She says it was a family decision for her to move back to Wyoming from Saudi Arabia to be the face of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which they started to push for legal protections and social acceptance for gays.

Shepard still talks of "the Judy I used to be," a postmaster's shy daughter from Glenrock, Wyo. She studied to be a social studies teacher at the University of Wyoming, which Matthew would later attend, and fell for a recent graduate who "looked just like my movie idol, Steve McQueen."

Dennis was a roughneck oil rigger. Judy never imagined that some day she would befriend real stars such asElton John and Ellen DeGeneres.

"She's gone from being a quiet, unassuming mother and wife to a civil rights leader," says Elizabeth Birch, a friend and former head of the Human Rights Campaign.

Shepard, who loves playing mah-jongg and drinking martinis, admits to being "flummoxed" at times about the gay and lesbian world. But, she adds, "It's not important that I understand it. It's important that I accept it."

She says she doesn't speak where she's likely to encounter hostile attitudes. Asked if she had ever converted anybody to her way of thinking, she says, "Not to my knowledge."

So why make 50 speeches a year, often traveling alone? There's the "ripple effect" of believers influencing family and friends, and the need to keep true believers believing. "Dennis says even the choir needs to rehearse," she says. "That's a good point. We get tired. We forget what we're fighting for."

Now, Shepard has broadened her fight to include gay marriage.

At the luncheon here, several state workers squirmed as Shepard spoke nonchalantly about same-sex weddings complete with "big white wedding gowns."

"She's not a single-issue person anymore," says Cathy Renna, a longtime lesbian activist.

Matt's friend Jim Osborn, a university diversity counselor who started Laramie's first "drag queen bingo" game at a cowboy bar, says attitudes have softened because of "the lives that she's touched."

Shepard says she gets too much credit for "a small cog in a very big movement."

Yet having met Obama, she boldly asserts that his opposition to gay marriage isn't absolute.

Like Ellen DeGeneres' mother, Betty — they're represented by the same speakers bureau and both earn up to $20,000 per event — Shepard says she can talk about gay rights with a voice familiar to mainstream America.

When gays and lesbians speak, listeners can "just go, 'Oh, there's just another gay person up there — wah, wah, wah, whining about what they don't have,' " she says. "I have standing … as a mom rather than as a member of the (gay) community. People look at me in a different way."

Shepard hopes her book will help people see her son in a different way, too.

He was "so much more than 'Matthew Shepard, the gay 21-year-old University of Wyoming college student,' " she writes in an author's note. "He had a family and countless friends. He had a life before the night he was tied to that fence."

So did Judy Shepard. But on that night, what she calls her "first life" came to an end.

"We all knew we couldn't do nothing," she says. "We owed it to Matt to do something."

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