Judy and Dennis Shepard are keynote speakers for this weekend’s Martin Luther King Celebration in Sacramento. Their son, Matthew, was a University of Wyoming student in 1998 when he was brutally beaten and tortured; he died six days later.
Matthew’s sexuality became a factor in the trial and conviction of his killers. His murder prompted new hate crime laws and inspired many books, plays and movies. His mother, Judy, has become a prominent LGBT activist.
The Shepards visited Insight to talk about how they're remembering their son.
Are the details of Matthew’s murders still important to you?
Judy: I guess that depends on ... the day. We tried to move forward from the event, so this doesn’t happen to other folks. It’s still continuing to happen. We just think we tell our story, other people might rethink their prejudice in regard to the LGBT community, but the actual details were then and this is now.
You had identified early, Judy, that you thought your son was gay. How did he navigate socially in the different countries and different schools?
Judy: Matt was totally a people person. He loved people. He just drew them in. They just came to him — they searched him out. He was a good listener. He was always smiling and laughing in a way that made people comfortable and relaxed and never judged.
Dennis, how do you reconcile? How do you try to make sense of it?
Dennis: I don’t. I will always be angry. I will always ask why did they do that to my son, just because he was different. Because we’re all different ... no offense, it chaps my butt to this day, and it will always do that.
Will you tell me about grief and what you’ve come to understand about it?
Dennis: Well, it never ends. You hear voices. We have his picture on the refrigerator. You wonder what he would have done with his life. The problem was that after Matt’s services, Logan went back to Minnesota to high school, Judy stayed here in the state and I went back to Saudi [Arabia] so we never did grieve together.
Sometimes you wonder if it would have been better if we had the chance to at least spend a couple days to talk about it — get over it. But you still have to grieve in your own way even if you are together. So you get those thoughts and those memories and things come up.
You see something on TV or you hear something and you get flashbacks to when the boys were both younger and doing things together. We had 14 inches of snow two days ago in Wyoming. I keep thinking of them outside playing outside with the dog out in the snow.
Judy: Snot frozen to their face.
Dennis: Yeah. (laughter)
You get these flashbacks just like you would if both your boys were with you right here next to you right now. But you know he’s not.
Matt would have been celebrating his 40th birthday this fall.
Judy: People know Matthew Shepard. But people don’t know Matt. He had flaws and issues and problems and he was just a kid and we didn’t want to set an unattainable goal for young people aspiring to be someone who tried to make a change. We wanted people to know who Matt was.