Published on
The Capital Times (Madison, Wisc.)

A Decade Later, Matthew Shepard Act Still Needed

Deb Price

On a cold night 11 years ago, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student was lured into a pickup truck and driven to the outskirts of Laramie, where, as he begged for mercy, he was tied to a fence, kicked and pistol-whipped so brutally that he lapsed into a coma. He later died.

He was a victim of hatred. He was also his mother's treasure.

And Matthew Shepard's horrible death forced much of our nation to look at how anti-gay prejudice can explode into violence.

The meaning of Matthew Shepard's life and death is the subject of a moving book by his mother, Judy Shepard.

"Matt's murder wasn't horrific because it ended an angelic life but because it ended a very human life riddled with all the complexities and contradictions each of us face," she writes in "The Meaning of Matthew."

Details of that "very human life" will feel familiar to many gay readers:

We watch Matt come out to his mom, who'd early on figured out her sensitive oldest son was gay. We see him wrestle with depression and drinking too much, then begin to blossom into a self-respecting gay man as he joins his college's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Alliance, and pitches in for Gay Awareness Week.

But one night at Fireside, the closest thing Laramie had to a gay bar, he ran into Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. A little tipsy and obviously gay, Matt was an easy target at 5 feet, 2 inches, 110 pounds.

Soon Matt found himself squeezed between McKinney and Henderson in a pickup. "Guess what?" McKinney reportedly announced. "We're not gay, and you're getting jacked."


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That murderous night turned Judy Shepard's world upside down, ultimately making her name synonymous with the ongoing push to add sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and gender to the federal hate crimes law.

"I don't see myself as an advocate or activist," she told me. "I'm a mom who lost her child to hate. And I am mad it is still going on."

A quintessential mom until Matt's death, she'd never done public speaking and knew little about the civil rights movement trying to end anti-gay discrimination. But we watch her decide to take her place at the microphones, embracing the very public role that tragedy created for her. It became "her saving grace," helping her channel her grief and feel connected to Matt through other gay people and their parents.

Judy Shepard had been living in Saudi Arabia with her husband when the telephone call came that Matt had been savagely beaten. In the whirl of getting to his hospital bedside, she saw a newspaper headline at an airport: "Gay Man Beaten and Left for Dead; 2 Are Charged."

That moment signaled the coming transformation of her life: Her family tragedy carried huge meaning for others - from college students to everyday Wyoming residents, and to countless other Americans forced to think about anti-gay violence.

Lessons about the appalling ripple effects of anti-gay prejudice didn't end with Matt's murder. McKinney's attorney tried the so-called homosexual panic defense, claiming Matt made sexual advances. And Matt's memorial service was marred by protest signs: "Matthew in Hell" and "God Hates Fags."

It's fitting that Judy Shepard is telling her family's story at a hopeful moment, when legislation to expand the nation's hate crimes law might finally pass. President Barack Obama is eager to sign it.

Why is the Matthew Shepard Act needed? Judy Shepard states the reason quite simply: "Those two boys thought it was OK to hate and do that to Matt."

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Deb Price of the Detroit News writes the first nationally syndicated column on gay issues.

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