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Matthew Shepard's Parents Won't Be a 'Photo Op' to Hide Trump's Hate

Judy and Dennis Shepard

Judy and Dennis Shepard reflect on the 10th anniversary of the hate-crimes law bearing their son's name, which is the subject of a new Oxygen special.


Dennis Shepard was in Saudi Arabia the day Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. As word of the election spread, a rush of people from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan -- terrified about the possible rollback to human rights in their nations -- approached him and asked, "Why did America let that happen?"

"Because people didn't vote," Shepard, in a state of "heartbreak" and "disbelief," responded to each of them, as recounted to The Advocate in a recent interview.

Tuesday marks the 10th anniversary of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, landmark legislation that expanded federal hate-crimes law to include crimes motivated by gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability.

As this anniversary approaches, Judy and Dennis Shepard -- the parents of Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in 1998 for being gay -- reflected on how founded these fears were. Their work running the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an antiviolence nonprofit, has shifted significantly since November 2016.

"Before the election, we thought we weren't going to be as busy because things were on the right track and that, were Hillary to be elected, we'd stay on that track and even progress more," said Judy Shepard. "And then there's this mess happening now and total turnaround, empowering the haters."

Indeed, hate crimes are on the rise; they increased 17 percent in 2017, according to a report from the FBI. Counties where Trump held rallies leading up to the 2016 election saw a massive spike of 226 percent, which points to a "Trump effect" of the president's rhetoric against marginalized people inflaming hatred.

Racists, homophobes, and national terrorists "see leadership doing the things they've apparently always wanted to do, and now they are, they're encouraged," said Judy Shepard.

"It's really scary. Violence and discrimination, and not just in the gay community, but all the marginalized communities," she added -- including attacks against women. Transgender women of color have been particularly at risk in this renewed climate of hatred; at least 19 have been killed this year to date.

To stem this tide of violence against trans people, it is not enough just to be aware of their deaths, said the Shepards. The American public must learn to value their lives.

"We need to humanize them collectively in the work that they're doing and how successful they are in their own right, rather than just young people being murdered," said Judy Shepard, who praised campaigns like International Pronouns Day that raise awareness about trans and nonbinary identities. "[Americans] need to know that [trans people] are their coworkers and their neighbors and family members that are just trying to be themselves."

While bigotry may have flowed during the Trump administration -- including attacks on transgender people, such as the trans military ban -- the funds for LGBTQ causes have not, which has put a strain on the Matthew Shepard Foundation and its work overseas. The Department of State has cut resources to embassies that formerly funded LGBTQ organizations abroad. Calls from the Department of Justice, which formerly worked with the Matthew Shepard Foundation, have all but stopped -- save for a recent invitation to an event commemorating the Hate Crimes Prevention Act's 10th anniversary.

The Shepards did not attend the Wednesday ceremony. Instead, they sent a damning letter calling Attorney General William Barr and the DOJ "hypocritical" for commemorating the law while simultaneously arguing that it should be legal to fire employees simply because they're transgender.

"Either you believe in equality for all or you don't," the Shephards said in the statement, which was read aloud at the event. "We do not honor our son by kowtowing to hypocrisy."

The Shepards told The Advocate they wrote the letter in order to send a message against the Trump administration's pinkwashing -- and to avoid being used as a political prop by Barr, who was originally scheduled to attend the commemoration but ultimately did not.

"We were both indignant that [Barr] would go there basically for a photo op and use that for their fake news story about how much they support the LGBTQ community -- while they're actually destroying all the gains that have been made in the last 20 years," said Dennis Shepard. "It was disgusting and aggravating."

Despite the surge of hatred, the Shepards also acknowledge the gains that have been made since President Obama signed the law that bears their son's name. "At the grassroots level, we've made tremendous progress. We've seen so many people of influence come out, which has influenced public opinion," said Judy Shepard, who cited gay Apple CEO Tim Cook and other prominent LGBTQ people as a bellwether of how society has moved forward in acceptance. The numbers support this: 61 percent of respondents in a 2017 Pew Research Center poll support same-sex marriage. Among millennials, that support is even higher at 74 percent.

However, the Shepards note there is a "confusing" disconnect between the wills of the public and the politicians in power at the state and federal levels. For example, 71 percent of Americans support the Equality Act and providing federal protections for LGBTQ workers, according to a Public Religion Research Institute survey -- yet its passage in the Republican-controlled Senate remains in doubt.

"They're not voting for what their constituents want. They're voting for something in their head," Judy Shepard said of antigay politicians. These representatives are "voting for their party platform and not what the voters who put them in an office desire," added Dennis Shepard.

The solution to this dilemma? Vote the antigay politicians out and replace them with those who want "to bring this country back to what it used to be, with equality across the board for all and an equal chance to succeed based on your abilities to work hard, your dreams and goals and not just because you're a part of a certain elite little club," said Dennis Shepard. "It would be helpful if voters didn't assume that because someone is an incumbent, they're the most qualified to do the job," said Judy Shepard.

The Shepards also point to voter apathy, gerrymandering, voter registration, and election dates (hold them on weekends!) as issues that need to be addressed in order to engender a more representative democracy. Education is also key -- particularly at the city and state levels.

"When you can be fired in 29 states for being gay and 30 states for being transgender? A lot of people don't know that. They think it's equal rights across the board," said Dennis Shepard.

And education is the purpose of Uncovered: Killed by Hate, a two-hour special on Oxygen tied to the anniversary of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The program takes an in-depth look at the murders of Shepard and Byrd as well as more recent acts of hatred like the killing of Blaze Bernstein and the Charlottesville riots. Bernstein, who was gay and Jewish, died at age 19 after being stabbed 20 times in 2018; his accused killer is a member of a neo-Nazi group. Byrd, a Black man, was murdered by white supremacists in 1998.

These are stories that need to be "told and retold," stressed Judy Shepard.

"I don't know that the average American is really aware of the violence that is still taking place with this great frequency," said Judy Shepard. "They need to understand that this danger is out there and we really need their help to try and fix it."

In addition to raising awareness about hate crimes, the Shepards hope the documentary teaches a lesson in the need for acceptance of LGBTQ people.

"We know the Bernstein family and they are just heartbroken because they love their son so much," said Dennis Shepard. "They accepted him for who he was. And it is important that people realize that family is family."

"How can you reject your child or family member just because of their sexual orientation?" he implored. "That is not a choice. There's no more choice in the color of your eyes. And it's important that that be out there. It's not a lifestyle. It's not a preference. It's the way you're born. Accept it and be blessed that you have children that you can still make memories with."

Uncovered: Killed by Hate airs Sunday at 7 p.m. Eastern/Pacific. Watch the trailer below.

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Daniel Reynolds

Daniel Reynolds is the editor of social media for The Advocate. A native of New Jersey, he writes about entertainment, health, and politics.
Daniel Reynolds is the editor of social media for The Advocate. A native of New Jersey, he writes about entertainment, health, and politics.