By Benjamin Smith
Unity Day speaker Judy Shepard stressed the importance of individual action in the face of adversity and acceptance of diversity during her speech in the Cavalla Room Wednesday night to a crowd of 200 Rider students, faculty and community members.
Shepard has been a proponent of homosexuals’ rights and is the founder of the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
“One person can make a difference, and everyone should try,” Shepard said, quoting John F. Kennedy to a packed audience. “We have become a S.I.C. society,” said Shepard. “Silent, Indifferent and Complacent.”
Shepard is the mother of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who was beaten within an inch of his life after asking two Laramie residents, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, for a ride home from a local bar.
On the night of Oct. 6, just over 13 years ago, McKinney and Henderson took $30 and Shepard’s shoes before tying him to a fencepost and leaving him to die. It wasn’t until the next day that his parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, learned of their son’s fate and hurried to his side as he lay in a coma in a hospital. Matthew never regained consciousness and died of his injuries on Oct. 12, 1998.
Matthew’s death came at a time when many states, including Wyoming, did not have comprehensive hate crime laws that integrated sexual orientation as a violent motivating factor, Shepard said.
Today this is not the case. An act of Congress known as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009. Judy Shepard is largely responsible for the groundbreaking legislation.
“We’re not ever going to get rid of everything hateful,” according to Shepard. She said that our best hope for doing so is educating youth about the importance to society of tolerance.
It wasn’t until after Matthew was 18 and attending the University of Wyoming that he phoned his parents, who were then living in Saudi Arabia, to tell his mother he was gay. Shepard said that she was understanding and supportive of her son’s openly gay identity, a sentiment shared by her husband.
“In not coming out to your family members,” Shepard said, “you’re breaking [your mother’s] heart” because you’re “not sharing your life with her.”
Wyoming boasts a population just over 500,000. It is dominated by a 96 percent Caucasian majority, according to Shepard.
“We had to trust that times would change for the better,” Shepard said on living in Wyoming while bearing her son’s secret homosexuality.
But society is not getting better everywhere, “or fast enough,” for her liking, Shepard said.
Sexual preference remains a facet of human nature not always protected under federal law. A person may still be fired solely on the basis of his or her sexual orientation in 28 states, including Wyoming, according to Shepard.
The story of Matthew’s death and subsequent public reaction to his murder has been told countless times during The Laramie Project, a play written by Moisés Kaufman and in the 2002 HBO movie of the same title.
Rider is currently performing The Laramie Project in the BLC Theater this weekend.