Meeting Judy

BY Alec Mapa

November 21 2005 12:00 AM ET

“Hello,
Alec. I just thought I’d introduce myself. My name is
Judy Shepard.” She walked right up to me at the
25th anniversary banquet for the Human Rights Campaign
in D.C., took my hands in hers, and I was completely
mortified. I should have been the one to introduce myself to
her. I planned on saying hello that night, but she was
already swamped by well-wishers, having just received
a standing ovation from 3,000 people. That’s a
lousy excuse, but the truth is, meeting famous people scares
the shit out of me. I regard celebrities like wild
animals on safari: I’m fascinated by their
presence but am far too intimidated to make an
approach.

I think
it’s because the first famous person I ever met was
Imelda Marcos. As a child I accompanied my father on a
tour of Manila he had booked for World War II
veterans. Included on the itinerary was an afternoon
visit with President Marcos at Malacañang Palace. While
waiting to meet Ferdinand, Imelda glided into the
receiving room. With a lacquered beehive that defied
gravity and a silk goddess shift festooned with
hand-embroidered flowers, she seemed less like a person and
more like a renegade parade float. I was terrified. I
squeaked out a pathetic “P-pleased to meet you,
Mrs. President.” She offered a limp handshake,
maintaining eye contact with the wall space just above my
head. I was in the tropics but felt ice run through my
veins.

Judy Shepard is
one of my heroes. She’s taken her grief over the
brutal slaying of her son Matthew and channeled it
into a galvanizing vehicle for tolerance and change.
Determined to prevent their son’s fate from
befalling other people, Judy and her husband, Dennis,
established the Matthew Shepard Foundation to help
carry on Matthew’s legacy by embracing the
causes he had championed. I was afraid to meet her. Not only
because my own activism seems vaudevillian and
inconsequential in comparison, but because Judy
Shepard looks just like my mom. Slap a black pixie wig on
her, give her an olive tint, and watch me scramble to hide
my report card.

I completely live
up to the stereotype of the gay man as mama’s boy. I
was my mother’s shadow. Teased relentlessly at
school, I only ever felt completely safe and relaxed
in her company. Judy has been quoted as saying,
“I loved Matt just the way he was.” Asian
people don’t say things like that, but I knew
subjectively that my mom felt the same way about me.
When I came out to her it was such a nonissue that I rued
the months I spent preparing for the big disclosure.
When she died 13 years ago I swore I would miss her
for the rest of my life. So far I have.

Judy said to me,
“I just wanted to thank you for all the work
you’ve done for our community.” I wanted
to put my hand over her mouth Dianne
Wiest–style and shout “Don’t
speak!” but was rendered mute by the sight of
this white woman with my mother’s face. I wanted to
tell her I’ve done nothing. I’m just a
comic embarrassed by my own neediness. But you’ve
given more than I ever could and without any of my
bitterness. You are the personification of grace. I
said none of this but just hugged her. She returned to
her table, our brief exchange over. I met a real star.
And the light was blinding.

Tags: Commentary

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