The parents of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student whose brutal murder in 1998 helped transform the nation’s perception of gays and lesbians and their struggle for equal rights, brought their campaign for justice to Sacramento on Thursday.
Judy Shepard addressed 60 law enforcement officers receiving hate-crimes training at the Central California Intelligence Center in McClellan Park before appearing at Sacramento State for an evening program. A self-described introvert, she has spoken to millions of people in 49 states and 16 nations since her son’s murder, urging them to accept gays and lesbians and expand civil rights protections.
“You are who you are, you love who you love, that is not a choice – gay is not a choice, transgender is not a choice,” she told law enforcement officers. “We all know someone – family, neighbors, co-workers, friends – who is gay. We miss Matt every single day. The only way we can heal is to help people like him.”
Her husband, Dennis Shepard, praised the officers for working to recognize possible hate crimes based on sexual orientation. “Matt never had a chance, but these young people today will,” he said. “With the work you’re doing, what happened to Matt will not happen again and you will make it easier from people to be themselves and not lead double lives.”
Matthew Shepard was a 21-year-old peer counselor and student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie when he stopped at a bar one October evening in 1998 and was later abducted by two men who pretended to be gay, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. They drove him out into the country and tied him to a split rail fence. McKinney savagely beat Shepard with the butt of a pistol. He was discovered alive 18 hours afterward by a cyclist who initially thought he was a scarecrow. He died several days later.
The Shepards received a standing ovation Thursday, and several officers came up to embrace Judy for her efforts, including her work on the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act signed by President Barack Obama on Oct. 28, 2009. The act was named after Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr., a 49-year-old African American slain in 1998 by three men, including two known white supremacists, in Jasper, Texas. The men tied Byrd by the ankles to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him to his death.
The act extended federal hate crime protections to acts motivated by a victim’s sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability. It also gave the Justice Department broader authority to prosecute violent crimes committed because of race, color, religion and/or national origin. If convicted, defendants can receive a maximum sentence of 10 years for a violent felony and up to life in prison if the victim dies or the crime includes kidnapping or aggravated sexual assault.
The training, sponsored by Sacramento-based U.S. Attorney Ben Wagner, outlined how federal authorities can prosecute hate crimes under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution when they cross state or national lines, take place along interstate highways or involve money transfers or weapons across state lines.
Wagner noted that hate-crime reporting often does not reflect the true scope of the problem because some jurisdictions do not record crimes as hate crimes or victims do not want to come forward.
“The analogy to domestic violence victims is a pretty good one – as Judy said at the outset, they don’t want to be a hero, they don’t want to be publicly known, they don’t want their employers to know ... they don’t want to be involved,” Wagner said. “They talk to you one day and the next day you can’t find them.”
Thursday’s law enforcement training, the first of several scheduled here, “is part of a nationwide effort by the Department of Justice to increase our collective ability to investigate and prosecute hate crimes,” Wagner said. “We owe a great debt to the Shepard family for their unceasing efforts in support of this cause, and I am particularly grateful for their presence and participation in our efforts in Sacramento.”
Judy Shepard said that hate crime reporting should be mandatory.
“Five states have no hate crime laws, including Wyoming,” she said, and despite the growing number of laws recognizing gay marriage, “in 30 states you can be married but still fired from your job for being gay.”
When Matt came out to his mom at 18, she said she told him, “What took you so long to tell me?”
His father, Dennis, likewise responded, “OK, what’s so important?”
But how and when a young person comes out varies widely, Dennis Shepard said. “Some do it by phone, some do it in person, and it still takes a lot of courage to do that, even though it’s easier today,” he said. He said the suicide rate among LGBT youths is higher than for straight young people of the same age and even higher than that for transgender individuals.
The Shepards established the Matthew Shepard Foundation to ensure their son did not die in vain. “It’s been cathartic for Judy because she keeps him alive this way,” Dennis said. “A lot of people come up to her for mom hugs, and say they’re still alive because she made them realize things are not that bad, they will get better. I’m so proud of her.”
Judy made it clear the struggle “is not about tolerance; it’s about acceptance.” Dennis added, “It’s not about gay rights; it’s about equal rights and human rights.”
Since Matthew Shepard’s death in 1998, the country has undergone a transformation: The federal Defense of Marriage Act blocking gay unions has been struck down, the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy has been repealed, and a growing number of states have recognized same-sex marriage.
Judy said that there are still pockets of hatred, discrimination and family rejection that result in gays and lesbians hating themselves.
She said the campaign for equal rights is not about forgiveness. The two men responsible for her son’s murder, who are both serving concurrent life sentences, “never asked for forgiveness.” Dennis added that Henderson “had the chance to stop McKinney and he never did.”
A documentary about their son’s life, “Matthew Shepard Is a Friend of Mine,” has begun playing in select theaters around the country and opens in Sacramento at the Crest Theatre on April 12.
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.