“It still res­onates”

Ac­tivism and life 20 years af­ter Matthew Shep­ard’s mur­der

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Elise Sch­melzer

Twenty years ago, Den­nis and Judy Shep­ard were not ac­tivists.

Twenty years ago, they were par­ents fran­ti­cally trav­el­ing to Colorado af­ter learn­ing their 21year­old son, Matthew, had been beaten and left for dead out­side Laramie.

Twenty years ago, they were par­ents star­ing at a man in a Fort Collins hospi­tal bed — beaten so badly they did not im­me­di­ately rec­og­nize him as their first­born son — and try­ing to rec­on­cile the im­age of the bro­ken body with mem­o­ries of their smil­ing boy.

They were the cou­ple on the front pages of news­pa­pers across the globe the day of their son’s fu­neral: Den­nis in a blue suit and bul­let­proof vest speak­ing to re­porters gath­ered out­side to hear their state­ment, Judy sob­bing as she leaned her fore­head against her hus­band’s shoul­der.

Af­ter Matthew Shep­ard’s death on Oct. 12, 1998, Den­nis and Judy en­dured a tor­rent of hate­ful let­ters curs­ing them be­cause their son was gay, the same rea­son his killers gave for at­tack­ing him. Protesters with the West­boro Bap­tist Church pick­eted Matthew’s fu­neral, scream­ing that he was burn­ing in hell. Re­porters across the globe picked apart Matthew’s life and the fam­ily’s his­tory. Con­spir­acy the­o­ries and mis­in­for­ma­tion abounded. It was a whirling hell, a cru­cible of pub­lic­ity upon a cru­cible of loss.

They could have shrunk away from it all and tended to their grief in pri­vate. Who would’ve blamed them?

But fad­ing back into some sem­blance of the lives they had be­fore Matthew died sim­ply wasn’t an op­tion.

“How could we deny that we had two won­der­ful sons and go back to Saudi Ara­bia (where the fam­ily lived at the time) and say we had one son?” Den­nis Shep­ard said last week, while wear­ing a blue and red tie that once be­longed to his el­dest son. “Could we pre­tend that Matt didn’t ex­ist?”

In­stead, they strode di­rectly into pub­lic life.

Over the past 20 years, Den­nis and Judy Shep­ard have flown more than 2 mil­lion miles and vis­ited 25 coun­tries and 49 states ad­vo­cat­ing for LGBTQ rights and stronger hate­crime laws. They have spo­ken to school­child­ren and pres­i­dents on be­half of their Den­ver­based Matthew Shep­ard Foun­da­tion. They have suc­cess­fully lob­bied for the cre­ation of a fed­eral hate­

crimes law named af­ter their son. The work is deeply ful­fill­ing for the Shep­ards, but it comes at a per­sonal cost.

“Some­thing very pre­cious”

On Oct. 6, 1998, Matthew Shep­ard got in a truck with two men whom he had met at a Laramie bar. The men, Aaron McK­in­ney and Rus­sell Hen­der­son, drove to the out­skirts of Laramie and robbed Shep­ard. They beat him so badly with the butt of a pis­tol that part of his ear had to be reat­tached. Then the men tied Matthew to a buck­rail fence and left him un­con­scious in the dirt and the cold prairie wind.

Eigh­teen hours later, a cy­clist found him, barely alive. The cy­clist first mis­took Matthew for a scare­crow.

Matthew, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Wy­oming, was whisked to Poudre Valley Hospi­tal in Fort Collins. Au­thor­i­ties said his as­sailants tar­geted him be­cause he was gay. The at­tack soon at­tracted international me­dia at­ten­tion. The Den­ver Post ran front­page sto­ries about Matthew and the at­tack for a week straight. Mil­lions of strangers waited to see if he would live.

Six days later, Matthew’s heart failed and he died with his fam­ily by his side. The na­tion mourned. Can­dle­light vig­ils lit up town squares and parks across the coun­try. Law­mak­ers and ac­tivists called for more hate­crime laws. Par­ents with gay chil­dren held their kids a lit­tle closer.

In 1999, McK­in­ney and Hen­der­son were con­victed of mur­der for killing Matthew and sen­tenced to life in prison. At McK­in­ney’s sen­tenc­ing hear­ing, Den­nis re­counted mem­o­ries of his son: singing in the shower to­gether, watch­ing him per­form in plays, telling fish­ing sto­ries. Den­nis ex­plained why he and Judy did not ask that McK­in­ney be sen­tenced to death.

“Ev­ery time you cel­e­brate Christ­mas, a birth­day, or the Fourth of July, re­mem­ber that Matt isn’t,” Den­nis said to McK­in­ney, seated nearby in the Laramie court­room. “Ev­ery time that you wake up in that prison cell, re­mem­ber that you had the op­por­tu­nity and the abil­ity to stop your ac­tions that night. Ev­ery time that you see your cell­mate, re­mem­ber that you had a choice, and now you are liv­ing that choice. You robbed me of some­thing very pre­cious, and I will never for­give you for that. Mr. McK­in­ney, I give you life in the mem­ory of one who no longer lives.”

Progress, re­gres­sion

Now, as the 21st Christ­mas with­out Matthew ap­proaches, McK­in­ney and Hen­der­son re­main in prison. The fence where Matthew was beaten is gone, swal­lowed by a pri­vate sub­di­vi­sion out­side Laramie. Most of this year’s batch of fresh­men at the Univer­sity of Wy­oming were not born yet when Matthew died. Be­sides a memo­rial bench tucked away on campus, there is lit­tle phys­i­cal re­minder that Matthew had been there at all, that he died such a hor­rific death for his iden­tity, that his death sparked a gen­er­a­tion of ac­tivism in his name.

But there is Den­nis, who re­turned to Laramie last week for a slate of events com­mem­o­rat­ing the 20th an­niver­sary of his son’s death. The trim man with sil­ver hair and quick­wit­ted jokes sat on pan­els and shook hands. He spoke with warmth to stu­dent ac­tors who are play­ing him in “The Laramie Project,” a play about Matthew’s life and death. He gave deep hugs to old friends and strangers alike.

The town is a reg­u­lar stop on the cou­ple’s seem­ingly end­less cal­en­dar of speak­ing engagements.

Af­ter Matthew’s death, the Shep­ards ed­u­cated them­selves on the chal­lenges the LGBTQ com­mu­nity faced and the rights they did not have. On what would have been Matthew’s 22nd birth­day, they cre­ated the Matthew Shep­ard Foun­da­tion with the money strangers had sent them for their son’s med­i­cal ex­penses.

They thought they would speak for five years max­i­mum, un­til the world moved on to the next horrible thing and for­got their son, Den­nis said.

That never happened. Re­quests for speak­ing have kept com­ing, so Judy and Den­nis have kept speak­ing. In the early years, they spoke about the need for equal rights for LGBTQ peo­ple. More re­cently, they have fo­cused on ad­vo­cat­ing for more laws that specif­i­cally ad­dress hate crimes and re­quire law en­force­ment to re­port sta­tis­tics about those crimes.

“For some rea­son, 20 years later it still res­onates,” Den­nis said. “He seemed to be the kid next door to ev­ery­body.”

They helped pass a 2009 law named af­ter Matthew that ex­panded the def­i­ni­tion of fed­eral hate­crime statutes to in­clude crimes mo­ti­vated by the vic­tim’s sex­u­al­ity, gen­der iden­tity or dis­abil­ity. The cou­ple felt the coun­try was mak­ing great progress from tol­er­ance of the LGBTQ com­mu­nity to ac­cep­tance, in­clu­sion and equal­ity, Den­nis said.

Then Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump was elected. The Shep­ards watched as the progress they helped cre­ate slid back­ward, Den­nis said.

The pres­i­dent and his ad­min­is­tra­tion have at­tempted to ban trans­gen­der peo­ple from the mil­i­tary, purged ref­er­ences to the LGBTQ com­mu­nity from the White House’s web­site and re­scinded guide­lines that said schools had to re­spect the gen­der iden­ti­ties of trans­gen­der stu­dents. The Depart­ment of Jus­tice doesn’t in­vite the Shep­ards to speak at con­fer­ences any­more, Den­nis said. The State Depart­ment no longer helps fund the cou­ple’s international speak­ing engagements.

“We’re sup­posed to be the leader of the world in equal­ity, equal rights and pro­tec­tion of those rights,” Den­nis said. “And we’re go­ing the other way.”

The re­gres­sion has only fo­cused the cou­ple and dou­bled their ded­i­ca­tion. Judy and Den­nis are 66 and 69 years old, re­spec­tively, but they have no solid plans to re­tire from their work. They will keep trav­el­ing and speak­ing un­til peo­ple stop re­quest­ing them, Den­nis said.

“Our goal is to shut down the foun­da­tion be­cause we’re no longer needed,” he said.

The anger and grief has never faded, Den­nis said last week. Al­though their work as ac­tivists has helped them process Matthew’s death, putting words to their loss day in and day out is a painful, pub­lic kind of heal­ing.

“How do you hear these sto­ries and still sleep?”

For years af­ter Matthew’s death, the fam­ily was sep­a­rated. Den­nis re­turned to Saudi Ara­bia, where the fam­ily had lived since 1993 for his work as a safety en­gi­neer with an oil com­pany. The cou­ple’s younger son flew back to board­ing school. And Judy moved to Casper full time to work with the foun­da­tion.

They never had a chance to truly grieve as a fam­ily, Den­nis said. The dis­tance strained their mar­riage.

The work in the first years was es­pe­cially ex­haust­ing for Judy, who Den­nis de­scribes as an ex­treme in­tro­vert. All any­body wanted to talk about was Matt. But soon she found cathar­sis in the process. It helped her grieve, Den­nis said.

“That was her job, to take care of her kids,” he said. “Everyone in that au­di­ence be­came her kids.”

Thou­sands of peo­ple have shared their sto­ries with Judy and Den­nis, about how they were re­jected by their par­ents, how they were bul­lied or abused. They have hugged thou­sands of young peo­ple who see in them the loving, ac­cept­ing par­ents they wish they had. They both ab­sorb the hurt of the young peo­ple who share their ex­pe­ri­ences with them.

“It’s hard to not take that back with you,” Den­nis said. “How do you hear these sto­ries and still sleep?”

The cou­ple are gen­er­ally home in Casper only about half the year and some­times spend weeks apart, though Den­nis has moved back to Casper. Judy wasn’t avail­able for an in­ter­view for this story be­cause of her busy sched­ule. Be­tween Oc­to­ber and mid­De­cem­ber this year, the cou­ple will be home for only 10 days. They rarely spend the an­niver­sary of Matthew’s death at home. This year they will be in Lon­don, ac­cept­ing an award. Next week, they will be in Juneau, Alaska, to speak — the only U.S. state Judy has yet to speak in, Den­nis said. Ho­tel room af­ter ho­tel room, restau­rant meal af­ter restau­rant meal.

“It can be men­tally drain­ing, go­ing from one place to an­other,” Den­nis said.

The miles are worth it, Den­nis said. Speak­ing about Matthew keeps Den­nis’ mem­o­ries of his slight, opin­ion­ated son from fad­ing. He misses the chances he should have to hug him, to yell at him. To sit at a fam­ily din­ner and chat about their days. He can still hear Matthew’s voice in his head.

But also, he said, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if peo­ple didn’t know his son’s name, if it’s even­tu­ally lost to time.

“I’ll be happy if they don’t know who Matt is,” he said. “That means we’ll have equal pro­tec­tion and equal re­spect across the board.”

Den­nis cher­ishes the mul­ti­tude of songs, po­ems, plays and movies ded­i­cated to Matthew. Den­nis wants peo­ple to know the full­ness of his son as a flawed hu­man, es­pe­cially as time passes and Matthew be­comes more of a sym­bol than a per­son.

He par­tic­u­larly cher­ishes the in­ter­views with Matthew’s friends fea­tured in the doc­u­men­tary “Matt Shep­ard is a Friend of Mine.” It al­lowed Den­nis to know his son as his friends knew him, the way he might have known Matthew had their re­la­tion­ship been able to ma­ture.

But even the doc­u­men­tary is bit­ter­sweet. The last sec­onds of the film show a home video of Matthew in a striped shirt and jeans, sit­ting on a foun­tain and smil­ing at his dad be­hind the video cam­era. Matthew waves as Den­nis tells him to say good­bye.

“Then the doc­u­men­tary ends,” Den­nis said last week. “And you’ve lost him again.”

Pho­tos by AAron On­tiveroz, The Den­ver Post

A dirt road, left, is near the site on pri­vate land in Wy­oming where 21­year­old Matthew Shep­ard was beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead. Shep­ard’s father, Den­nis Shep­ard, mid­dle, says his ul­ti­mate goal is to close the Matthew Shep­ard Foun­da­tion once hate has been erased. Right, a view of Grand Av­enue in Laramie near the Al­bany County Court­house, where Rus­sell Hen­der­son and Aaron McK­in­ney were tried for mur­der.

AAron On­tiveroz, The Den­ver Post

FACES A NDS CENES: 1. “I had peo­ple that were both con­cerned as oth­er­wise that I would not get ten­ure be­cause I was out. That would have been the mid­ to late ’90s,” said Cathrine Connolly, the first openly gay UW fac­ulty mem­ber and Wy­oming’s first openly gay state leg­is­la­tor. 2. A panoramic view from near the site of where 21­year­old Matthew Shep­ard was left to die inLaramie. 3. The sun rises on the Al­bany County Court­house, where Rus­sell Hen­der­son andAaron McK­in­ney were tried for mur­der. 4. A dirt road near the site where Matthew was left to die. 5. Dr. Ru­lon Stacey made the an­nounce­ment of Matthew’s death Oct. 12, 1998, at the PoudreValley Hospi­tal in Fort Collins. 6. Al­bany County Sher­iff Dave O’Mal­ley was the chief of po­lice at the time of Matthew’s killing. “When this case started, I was ho­mo­pho­bic. I was mean­spir­ited when it came to the gay com­mu­nity. This in­ves­ti­ga­tion forced me to in­ter­act with our gay com­mu­nity,” O’Mal­ley said. 7. Crows con­gre­gate on a tree Oct. 3. 8. Den­nis Shep­ard feels di­vided on sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions not know­ing the name of his son. “On one side, I want them to know, so that they un­der­stand that what they have, both straight and gay, the rights they have and priv­i­leges can be taken away so quickly. On the other side, I will be happy if they don’t know who Matt is be­cause that means we have equal pro­tec­tion and equal re­spect across the board.” 9. Ni­chol Bon­durant was one of the orig­i­nal an­gels who protested against ha­tred. 10. JimOs­born was a co­founder of the an­gels and is now a mar­ried father of one. Grow­ing up gay in the 1980s and ’90s in the ru­ral reaches, Os­born said he thought he was the only one. “There were no other gay kids.” 11. Os­born is the cen­tral fig­ure of a mu­ral in down­town Laramie along­side fel­low an­gels Ro­maine Patterson, left, and Bon­durant, right. 12. A tat­too on O’Mal­ley’s right fore­arm is of Un­der­sh­er­iff Rob DeBree’s sig­na­ture ac­com­pa­nied by a sher­iff ’s of­fice badge. 13. UW mu­sic pro­fes­sor Nicole La­mar­tine is pro­duc­ing a show ti­tled “An­gels” that in­cor­po­rates lo­cal schools and univer­sity stu­dents. “These kids weren’t born yet, and I hope that their minds are open to change and how it oc­curs.” 14. Se­cond Street in Laramie is seen af­ter dark near where the Fireside Lounge once stood. The lounge was the last place Matthew was seen alive. 15. Part­ners Christi Boggs, left, and Rachel Wat­son are LGBTQ ad­vo­cates at UW who de­cided to stay in Laramie af­ter Matthew’s death. “You don't ever stop be­ing afraid for safety, but you re­al­ize there are other things that are im­por­tant,” Wat­son said. 16. Jess Fahls­ing is a se­nior at UW. “Wy­oming isn’t a place where there is overt ho­mo­pho­bia, but there is era­sure. When I am back in Rock Springs, I am not vis­i­ble or out. Things are slowly, slowly get­ting bet­ter.”

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