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Gay Times December 08 - Issue 363

Mother’s Pride

On the tenth anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s murder, his mother Judy tells GT how his death has affected her and continues to inspire her to fight for gay rights

In all the column inches, speeches and films that came out in the paroxysm of horror that followed the torture and murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998, there were two details that defined the impact of the homophobic attack. The first came from the man who found Matthew. Eighteen hours after the 21-year-old student had been pistol-whipped, beaten, burned and tied to a post in a remote field in Laramie, Wyoming, Aaron Kreifels happened to cycle past. Kreifels revealed how, when he first saw Matthew, he mistook him for a scarecrow. The second defining image came from the first police officer on the scene, Deputy Sheriff Fluty. She said that the only part of Matthew’s face not covered in blood were the tracks where his tears had washed it away.
Ten years later, his mother is still fighting. Not for justice for the murderers, who received double life sentences, but for the rights of gay people. Having set up the Matthew Shepard Foundation in December 1998, two months after his death, she has devoted her life to campaigning for federal hate-crime laws to be introduced, and, through endless educational work, to achieving her ultimate goal: the eradication of hatred.
The voice that comes over the phone late on the eve of the anniversary, however, doesn’t sound at first like that of a warrior woman. It’s a small voice: slow, gentle, careful. Sadness comes through, but it’s overridden by diamond-tough determination. And as she begins to unpick the events of October 12th, 1998, and explain how they changed her life irrevocably, something else emerges: enduring hope.

Does it feel like 10 years since Matthew’s murder?
Sometimes it seems like yesterday and sometimes 100 years ago, but what these years signify is how little has changed to make the gay community safer.

Has your grief changed over the years?
In the beginning I was more emotional about it. I’ve learned that when I become emotional, people stopped listening to what I was saying. I’ve taught myself not to do that. I’m a little angrier now than I was at the beginning because things aren’t changing quickly enough.

Is it any less intense?
No, the grief is different. It used to bring tears and a pain in my chest – it still does, but there’s also a motivation behind the tears to make things better.

What are your coping strategies?
I have no idea. My husband says I compartmentalise things pretty well – so maybe I put them away and shut the door.

What did you love most about Matthew?
He always made me laugh, even when I was most frustrated with him. He had a way about him that made you feel happy and good about everything. I miss that. And of course his big smile and wonderful hugs.

Do you still speak to him?
Yeah, I do. In an off-hand way, like, “OK, we have a problem, Matt, we need to figure out what to do here.”

In which ways has his murder changed you?
I’ve become more of an extravert than I really am – I had to learn how to do that. I’ve learned a lot about people generally, about the gay movement and more about politics than I ever wanted to.

How have you, your husband and other son, Logan, risen above what happened?
We all know that Matt wouldn’t have wanted us to become victims too and live our lives only in grief. But there is something missing when we’re all together.

What were you told when you received the call that he had been hurt?
They had no details; we only knew that he had been severely injured. When we found out at the hospital that it was two boys who had beaten and robbed him, I thought, “What would possess someone to do that to another human being?”

Had the doctors prepared you for how he would look?
No. When we went into the room I wasn’t even sure we were in the right room – he looked so different with his face so swollen and covered in stitches and cuts. His head was completely covered in bandages. I wondered, “Is that even my son?”

The funeral itself was famously picketed by the Westboro Baptist Church. Were you aware that was happening? How visible were their “God Hates Fags” placards?
They were right outside the church and we knew they were coming. We, however, came in through the back of the church, and I never saw them. I still haven’t. Why would people go through their lives doing that?

Do you think Fred Phelps, the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, is gay?
[Laughing] Nobody’s ever asked me that outright! I have my suspicions but I’ve never met the man. I just think that the depth of his hate speaks volumes. They say that people who express that much hatred are unhappy with their own sexuality.

So, it would be your hunch that he is?
It would be my hunch.

Did the picketing of Matthew’s funeral fuel your determination to campaign for gay rights?
The protest had a part in fuelling my frustration and anger about what was happening to the gay community. People think it’s OK to feel hatred towards gay people because the church tells them so.

Do you forgive Matthew’s killers?
I don’t think that’s part of my journey. I don’t blame them 100%. I blame society at least as much as them, because it created the environment that made them think what they did was OK.

Historically, times of financial hardship provoke greater intolerance and bigotry. Do you worry that the current economic crisis could trigger an escalation of bigotry?
Yes. There always has to be a scapegoat – in the ’30s it was the black community, in the ’50s it was the Communists. Is it now going to be the gay community? It’s as vulnerable as the illegal immigrants. I believe that there will be violence.

What do you think Matthew, as a politics student, would have thought of the presidential candidates?
There’s not much question there – he would be for Obama, hands down.

What would it take for McCain and Palin to fully embrace gay rights?
A personal experience like mine.

Wyoming still doesn’t recognise hate crimes. How does that make you feel?
Well, it was a perfect opportunity for Wyoming to set the example for the rest of the nation when it came up just after Matthew’s murder. But they didn’t do it, and still haven’t – ours is one of four or five states that don’t have any hate-crime laws at all. I’m very disappointed.

How many hours a week do you work for the foundation?
All day, every day.

Can you ever imagine allowing yourself to give up campaigning?
No. I couldn’t give up. Ever.

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Words Patrick Strudwick

More from Gay Times December 08 - Issue 363