July 07, 2021

LGBTQ @ Venable Presents: The Journey from Grief to Gay Rights Advocacy: A Conversation with Judy Shepard

4 min

More than 20 years ago, Judy Shepard lost her son Matthew to a murder motivated by anti-gay hate. In a recent conversation with LGBTQ @ Venable co-chairs Tiffany Williams and Colin Vandell, Judy spoke about how she and her husband coped with their grief over their son's death. Judy also addressed some questions about how she is carrying on her son's legacy through the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

Q: How did the Matthew Shepard Foundation come to be, and what are its goals?

A: The foundation was launched on Matt's birthday, December 1, 1998, shortly after he passed. We had received lots of cards and letters from people, sometimes with money to help us pay the medical bills. We didn't feel that was the best use of that money, however, so we decided to start a foundation to help Matt's peers and his community in some way. Soon after the trials were over, I began speaking out and trying to raise awareness about LGBTQ issues. Over the years, we have lobbied for federal hate crime legislation, for marriage equality, Don't Ask/Don't Tell, non-discrimination job policies, and trying to establish a nationwide network of laws to protect LGBTQ rights, instead of the patchwork that exists today.

Q: What initiative that you've worked on for the Foundation would you say you're most proud of?

A: The achievement I'm most proud of is the passage in 2009 of the Shepard Byrd Act, the federal hate crime legislation, which, among other things, expanded the definition of hate crimes to include those committed because of the victim's sexual orientation or gender identity. It took us a long time to get there, and I was certainly not the only one involved and was not there at the beginning. But there was an understanding that the hate crime laws from the civil rights era needed to be expanded, and when Matt was killed, the initiators of the bill thought maybe our son's story would show people why the LGBTQ community needs to be included. So, we became part of the fight.

Q: What do you see as the greatest areas of need in the LGBTQ community today?

A: The biggest area of need right now is transgender rights. Until recently, the language wasn't there to even talk about issues this community is facing. At least now that part has gotten better. But hate crimes against this community, particularly against transwomen of color, are just skyrocketing. And this is still the LGBTQ area which is most prone to misinformation and misunderstanding. So, we have to be really intentional about how we go forward.

Q: If you could make one big ask of the Biden administration for something that it would really focus on related to LGBTQ issues, what would that be right now?

A: We have got to figure out a way to get the Equality Act through Congress. It passed the House, twice, but is lingering in the Senate. The Equality Act would ensure that equal rights for the gay community are the same throughout the nation. At the moment, we have a situation where in one state an LGBTQ individual's job is protected by state law, but it's not in a neighboring state. Similarly, in some states LGTBQ families – their adopted children – are recognized, but not in a neighboring state. That makes no sense.

Q: What words of advice do you have for parents whose children recently came out to them, or revealed their gender identity?

A: Listen. Just listen to what they're telling you. You may not think that they understand what they're saying. But they know what's going on. They know who they are. They know what is in front of them. What they need, however, is to know more of the history that led up to this moment. As parents, we need to become informed about the issues that our LGBTQ children are going to face. There are organizations like PFLAG, which is a tremendous parental support group, and lots of resources to help people educate themselves. But, in my experience, listening to what Matt had to tell me was the best thing I could do for him.

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