Short in stature,
Judy Shepard walks in and stands at a podium in
Chicago, only to be dwarfed by an unwieldy microphone. ''I'm
not a professional speaker,'' she tells her audience.
They number in the hundreds and are mostly teens
and young adults.
She is, she tells them, ''a mom with a story.''
She's a social studies teacher, a country girl from
Wyoming who reluctantly became a political activist
after her 21-year-old son Matthew Shepard was beaten, tied
to a fence, and left for dead on the prairie outside
Laramie, Wyo., in 1998.
Because Matthew was gay, his high-profile death
eight years ago became a rallying point for proponents
of tougher hate crimes legislation. Since then,
Shepard has hounded politicians, asking them to broaden hate
crimes protections on the federal level and in many
states that don't have them, including her own. She
has stood side-by-side with the family of James Byrd
Jr., a black man who was dragged to his death in Jasper,
Texas, the same year Matthew died.
She also has maintained a demanding speaking
schedule that takes her to college campuses across the
country. This fall she takes her hate crimes campaign
a step further by pushing young people to vote and then
pressure the officials they elect.
''What happened to the days when we questioned
authority? You don't yell. You don't scream,'' she
told her audience at Chicago's Roosevelt University.
Her tone was gentle but firm. ''You should be just
mad--mad, mad, mad.''
This month, the foundation she and husband
Dennis began in their son's name started distributing
lapel buttons with their son's photo that say
Disappointed with her fellow baby boomers,
Shepard aims her get-out-the-vote effort at a
generation of young Americans whom polls show are more
accepting of diversity and gay issues than their
elders--and who also showed signs of life in the
2004 election, when nearly half of all eligible young
voters cast ballots.
''Matt was passionate about politics and voting,
so it seemed like a natural fit,'' Shepard, who is 54
and lives in Casper, Wyo., said in an interview.
It is an image of her eldest son that she'd much
rather remember than the last time she saw him, barely
alive in a hospital bed, his head wrapped in bandages
and his face swollen and stitched. She didn't recognize him
at first and to this day is not sure he was aware of his
family's presence at his bedside before he died on
October 12, 1998.
''I do this now because I don't want there to be
another Matthew. But I also don't want there to be
another Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson,''
Shepard said of the two young men who are each serving two
life sentences after pleading guilty to felony murder and
kidnapping to avoid the death penalty.
Shepard reminds her young audiences that many
states do not have employment or housing protections
for those who are gay, lesbian, or transsexual. She
does not, however, limit her speeches to those issues,
and includes race-related hate crimes and interviews with
James Byrd's family in a video presentation.
''This isn't a gay thing,'' Shepard often says.
''This is a hate thing.''
Jack McDevitt, associate dean of Northeastern
University's College of Criminal Justice and an expert
on hate crimes, calls Shepard's work ''incredibly
important.'' ''It doesn't do everything we need it to do,''
he says. ''But research indicates that the majority of hate
crimes or bias crimes are committed by young people.''
So, he says, a young person who's been educated
about hate crimes could deter other young peers from
After Shepard's speech in Chicago, 15-year-old
Danny Rohde rose from the crowd to tell Shepard about
bullying he's witnessed against a German student and
others at his private city school who are perceived to be
outsiders. Shepard encouraged him to get his teachers involved.
''I try to stick up for them, but it's really
hard,'' Rohde said of the students who are being
harassed. ''It's really disturbing.''
Outside the auditorium, several who attended
said they were inspired by Shepard--to register
to vote and to stand up against discrimination and hate.
''It was phenomenal. It was interesting to see
how loving a mother can be,'' said Olin Eargle, a
23-year-old gay man from Chicago who works in real estate.
They are the kinds of responses that keep Judy
Shepard going, especially on days when she feels worn
out. She wonders why so many victims of hate crimes
don't get the attention her son did. She worries about young
people who are kicked out of their homes because they are
gay or for any other number of reasons.
But, she says, there is always that
hope--and the thought that Matthew would want
her to fight on. ''I know it's going to change; I know the
battle is won,'' she said. ''It's just a matter of when.''
(Martha Irvine, AP)