'Sheparding' students towards tolerance

On October 12, 1998, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was murdered; beaten, tied to a fence post and left for dead in the small town of Laramie, Wyoming. His mother, Judy Shepard, believes that her son was targeted because he was gay. She now travels the country speaking out against hate crimes and encouraging unity and tolerance.

On Monday, May 17, Shepard spoke candidly about Matthew at SMC's Broad Stage, describing the subsequent hate crime legislation that she helped pass in response to his death. The event was presented in partnership with Santa Monica College, Santa Monica Malibu School District and Santa Monica Bay Area Human Relations Council.

As for why Shepard, a self-proclaimed introvert and shy person, keeps vigilant about telling Matthew's story, she said, "It's not a gay thing, it's a hate thing. If I gave up, Matthew would be disappointed."

The talk was part of a lecture series called, "Community Conversations: Exploring Issues of Civic Responsibilities." It was presented by The Allstate Foundation and Facing History and Ourselves, an international organization dedicated to eliminating prejudice.

Matthew told his mom he was gay when he was 18, but she said she knew from the time he was eight years old. "Dolly Parton was his favorite Halloween costume," said Shepard, smiling as she added, "He was quite good at it by the third year." Her only question to Matthew when he came out to her was, "Why did it take you so long to tell me?"

Shepard was accepting of her son's sexuality but recognizes that the small town where he grew up may not have seen him the same way.

Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, both 21 at the time, were charged in the attack and both received two life sentences. "Maybe they thought that the world wouldn't miss another faggot," said Shepard.

Shepard established The Matthew Shepard Foundation and serves on the board of directors. She speaks at conferences and schools about homosexuality and the need to accept differences in others. With her activism, she has brought Matthew's story to Congress, fighting to pass a hate crime prevention act in her son's name. In a triumphant conclusion, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed into law on October 28, 2009 by President Barack Obama.

An audience member asked Shepard if she has seen a shift in tolerance toward the gay community since Matthew's death. "It's been like night and day," she said. "I [used to] see fear in students' and parents' faces because they thought that something would happen to them like it happened to Matthew, but now I see activism, the activism for equal rights."

Shepard concluded with advice given to her by her grandmother. "God gave us two ears, but only one mouth for a reason." Shepard stressed how important it is to keep an open mind and be a patient and unprejudiced listener for people struggling because they are different.

"If you know someone who you think is gay and they haven't told you, then you might want to question why," she said.