The Luncheon Society/Judy Shepard/San Francisco 10.23.09/Los Angeles 10.26.09

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ShepardOnly days before President Obama signed legislation to expand the definition of a hate crime, The Luncheon Society met with Judy Shepard, whose son is memorialized in the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd Hate Crime Prevention Act .

On the evening of October 6, 1998, two men lured a 21 year old University of Wyoming student named Matthew Shepard to a grisly death.  Both assailants targeted the young man because they believed that he was gay.  They befriended him, shared drinks, and offered him a ride home.  However, they drove him to a remote location, where he was robbed, tortured, and brutally beaten. One of the assailants pistol-whipped Shepard with such force that it crushed his skull inward.  He was left for dead, with his hands tied to a fencepost just outside of Laramie, Wyoming.

Somehow, what remained of Matthew Shepard survived the cold night in a deep coma. Suffering from hypothermia, he was discovered by a mountain biker the next day, who at first mistook the young man for a scarecrow. Shepard’s head, face, and neck were caked in blood and only wiped clean where tears had streamed down his face.  He was rushed to the local hospital in Laramie, Wyoming before being transferred to another hospital in Ft. Collins Colorado. The prognosis was grim. He suffered severe brain stem damage as a result of the attack’s savage nature. He never regained consciousness and died five days later surrounded by his family and a nation horrified by what took place.

It is hard to believe that eleven years have passed since the murder, but the story of Matthew Shepard remains in the forefront of many.  Soon after the 1998 murder, Moises Kauffman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project interviewed a variety of people who lived in Laramie to get their thoughts on how the murder has transformed their community.  These interviews became the basis for “The Laramie Project,” to which debuted to stunning reviews. Today, “The Laramie Project” has been seen by 50 million people and is the second most-performed high school play, only behind Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town.” Judy Shepard was portrayed by Stockard Channing in HBO’s “The Matthew Shepard Story.” Finally, Matthew Shepard, like James Byrd has been inexorably linked to the drive to expand Hate Crimes beyond its original narrow scope.

The Luncheon Society met with Judy Shepard for two intimate luncheons in San Francisco on October 23rd and in Los Angeles on October 26th.  She is currently on a book tour to support her memoir of her son’s life, titled, “The Meaning of Matthew,” which details his short life and tragic end in often unflinching detail.  She also wanted to set the record straight on a number of points. In her mind, her son wasn’t Matthew Shepard, but just a young boy named Matt.  Before he became an icon for the expansion of Hate Crime legislation, he was merely a young man trying to figure out his path in life after coming out to his parents and his friends.

Judy Shepard is a quiet, petite woman, a most unlikely activist.  She grew up in the Mountain West, met her husband in college, and they settled into a quiet life of family, camping, and hunting.  A dramatic collapse in the domestic oil exploration in the 1980’s led to a move across the globe to Saudi Arabia, where Judy and her husband Dennis settled into the American compound within ARAMCO, the huge state-owned oil company.

As horrible as what took place in Laramie, it was not considered a “Hate Crime” under federal statute.  The 1969 Hate Crime Law allows federal prosecution of those who, “willingly injures, intimidates or interferes with another person, or attempts to do so, by force because of the other person’s race, color, and religion or national origin.”  However, the act only addresses federally protected activities like, applying for employment, being a juror, attending school or patronizing a public place.

The law. Because of narrow limitations of the 1969 law, Matthew Shepard’s killers could not be prosecuted under federal Hate Crimes statute.  Worse, these laws did not extend outward to a victim’s gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability nor was the federal government able to assist in the prosecution. 

The same limitations were found in the case of James Byrd Jr, an African-American who was brutally killed in Jasper, Texas a few months before Matthew Shepard. Byrd, who was targeted by white supremacists because of his race, was kidnapped, stripped naked, chained by his ankles, and dragged for three miles behind a pickup truck before he was decapitated by a storm drain.  In Texas at that time, there were no Hate Crime statutes on the books.

A Mother knows. Judy Shepard intuitively knew that her son Matt was gay at an early age, probably between the time he was 8 or 10.  Because this took place during the 1980’s, long before there had been significant advances in mitigating the damage caused by the HIV virus, she worried about the potential death sentence that might arrive with an infection.  As Matt grew up, Judy kept her feelings to herself but allowed him to come to terms with his identity in a way that made sense for him.  

As a young man, he made friends easily. Like any teenager, he drove his parents to distraction over his teenage discretions. He attended local schools with his brother Logan until the family moved to Saudi Arabia. While Judy worried that her children might resist the move; instead, they instead embraced it.  As part of the ARAMCO compensation plan, the Shepard children were able to attend any boarding school of their choice, because there were no high schools within the American compound. It also meant that during most of the 1990’s the Shepard family was scattered over the globe.

While in boarding school on a trip to Morocco, he was raped by several locals and was found badly beaten, as well as shirtless and shoeless.  His mother noted that Matt seemed both saddened and embarrassed by the attack and it precipitated a deep depression with recurrent nightmares and subsequent anxiety attacks. After graduating from high school in 1995, he enrolled as a freshman at a North Carolina college, where he dealt with homophobia from his roommates before dropping out of school altogether.  After a few years in Denver, he enrolled at the University of Wyoming at Laramie. It appeared that the horizon had brighten for their eldest son.

When the Shepard family received a phone call from the ER doctor at the Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie, their world changed in a flash.  Instead of hearing from their son, who would normally call early in the morning, they received the preliminary news of their son’s fate.  Worse, it took 18 hours to chainsaw through the Saudi bureaucracy to leave the country.  All they knew is that he had been attacked and his chances for survival were remote.  At the time, there was no indication that it was a hate crime. Matt’s godmother worked as a nurse at the hospital and assisted where possible.  However, as they came through the Minneapolis Airport, they saw the front-page New York Times article that hinted at the reasons behind the attack; it was a Hate Crime.

The Shepard family was still unaware of the media circus that trailed their son’s fate until they landed in Denver and were escorted around the media.  For the next few days, they attended to their son’s vigil. Judy Shepard walked unnoticed amongst the silent vigil for that took place for her son outside the hospital.  She was touched by the vigil and had no idea where they had found photos of her son. Both parents discovered that their son was HIV positive and based on the signature of the virus, it was a recent infection; it was doubtful that Matt even knew his situation.

Judy Shepard is still unsure why her son’s death captivated a nation.  Perhaps it was because he looked so innocent in his photo. Perhaps it’s was because early news reports incorrectly stated that he had been “crucified” on the fence. Maybe the country was going through the partisan fatigue of the Clinton Impeachment and the horrible nature of the crime refocused the camera lenses elsewhere. The Shepard family was emotionally moved by the outpouring of grief at the memorial for their son, even though the ceremony was picketed by some protesters like Fred Phelps.

After both assailants were found guilty and sentenced to life terms in prison, Judy Shepard looks for ways to memorialize her son.  She started the Mathew Shepard Foundation and started speaking on behalf of Gay Rights and expanding Hate Crime provision so that the federal government could assist the prosecution of cases like her son’s.  Albany County, who prosecuted the both assailants, had to furlough a number of employees in order to pay for the costs of the trial.

Legacy. Today, Shepard says, many people who live in Laramie are ambivalent about the legacy of that night.  Some choose to deny that a hate crime took place and suggest that it was a robbery gone horribly bad.  Others will brush off any suggestion that what took place along that fence line should stain any local residents.  Still other residents say that it’s time to let “that boy” move on.

The first attempt at widening the Hate Crime Bill came in 2001 when John Conyers sponsored Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2001, which died in a House committee floor and could not reach a cloture vote in the Senate. Soon the bill found two champions, Ted Kennedy and Senator Gordon Smith, a Republican for Oregon. Kennedy’s advocacy made sense but Smith’s support was something of a surprise.  A Mormon and moderate Republican, he felt that it was time to change things after he saw the “Mathew Shepard Story,” in a hotel room while traveling on Senate business.

Roberta Achtenberg, who was the Assistant Secretary of Housing during the Clinton Administration, spoke of how she had to endure a political gauntlet as the first open lesbian who had to earn Senate confirmation.  Roberta also brought pioneering lesbian activist Phyllis Lyon as her guest.  It was Lyons, who in June 2008 with her long time partner Del Martin, became the first couple to be married in a same-sex ceremony in San Francisco’s City Hall after more than a half-century together.

Legislative progress is a slow endeavor.  Every session since 2001, the bill had been introduced and even though its prospects improved with each session, it was still frustrating for Shepard, perhaps feeling a bit naive, felt that the right thing to do came with an easy answer: pass the bill.  She was unprepared for congressional courtesy, which meant that people were “for you” until the roll call came and went and these “supporters” were nowhere to be found. She was also disappointed by resistance from gay staffers who work for conservative legislators who put their career ahead of their full rights.

In 2009, she had to endure comments from Congresswoman Virginia Foxx, who claimed that Matthew Shepard’s death was only a robbery and referred to hate crime element as a “hoax,“ even though it contradicted court testimony by one of the assailants.

However, she became concerned about the fate of the bill after Gordon Smith lost his reelection bid in 2008 to Jeff Merkeley. Also months before, Senator Kennedy’s health took a turn for the worse with his diagnosis of brain cancer, which would eventually cost him his life. However, Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 was attached as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010.

Judy Shepard has hope for the future. She believes that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will be retired soon, the Defense of Marriage Act will be overturned, and that full marital right will be extended for all.  David Boies and Former Solicitor General Ted Olson, adversaries when they argued Bush v. Gore in 2000, have teamed up as co-counsel to overturn California’s Proposition 8 on equal protection grounds.

Perhaps its proof that Civil Rights only walks in one direction.

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