NEAL CONAN, host:
Eleven years ago, millions around the world were horrified by the murder of Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming who was kidnapped, robbed, beaten, tied to a fence, pistol-whipped, and then left to die. His killers targeted him because he was gay.
Since then, his mother, Judy Shepard, has become a champion of gay rights and an advocate for a national hate-crimes bill named for Matthew Shepard. It's passed in the House of Representatives, but it's stuck in the U.S. Senate.
Before his murder, Matthew was simply the son of Judy Shepard and her husband, Dennis, and the older brother of Logan. He was a young man who struggled with his sexual identity, depression and anxiety. Matt's murder wasn't horrific because it ended an angelic life, his mother writes in a new memoir, but because it ended a very human life, riddled with all the complexities and contradictions each of us face. Her book is titled "The Meaning of Matthew."
If you'd like to talk with Judy Shepard about what Matthew Shepard meant to you, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Judy Shepard is with us from our bureau in New York. And it's very good of you to be on TALK OF THE NATION with us today.
Ms. JUDY SHEPARD (Author, "The Meaning of Matthew"): Thank you, Neal. I appreciate the invitation.
CONAN: And one question you ask yourself throughout the book after Matthew is murdered is, why Matt? Have you ever found the answer?
Ms. SHEPARD: You know, I haven't. I guess we always ask ourselves that question, as I think many loved ones do, once we lose for whatever reason, why us? It just is what it is, I guess.
CONAN: And I have to say that as you go through your experience following his murder and the tremendous public attention that the case engendered - of course, there were the awful days when he was in a coma in Wyoming. You had to fly all the way there from Saudi Arabia, where you and your husband were living, and picking up your son Logan in Minnesota on the way. You had, at that time, some questions about the public response to this. You described going down to a vigil, in fact, while Matthew was still alive.
Ms. SHEPARD: Right. We didn't quite understand everyone else's interest in what was happening to Matt. Outside the local area of Denver, Fort Collins or Wyoming, the reason that it would be national or international is just beyond our understanding.
So we - no one knew us, no one knew what we look like or anything about us, so I - there was a vigil outside the hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado. I went down to see what everyone was talking about, what they were feeling, why they felt that this was something they all needed to be a part of. It was a quite a learning experience for me. I wasn't fully convinced of everyone's motives at that time, though I think years of seeing news about the gay community being predicted or being - I'm sorry - being reported as negative or sensational was still on my mind.
CONAN: And, as you said, you suspected the motives of people who wanted to attend the funeral as well, politicians and that sort of thing.
Ms. SHEPARD: Right. Exactly.
CONAN: And you can understand that, particularly, as a family who was just overwhelmed by this.
Ms. SHEPARD: Yeah. You know, you wonder - I guess you wonder when you see it happening to someone else, what would I do if I were in that situation? I don't think anyone's response is ever known before and is ever similar after. You just have to rely in your past life experience if there's anything that even, you know, is similar, which in our case was not. Small-town people from an underpopulated state, living very simple lives, to now be international fodder for the news was just unbelievable.
CONAN: And the idea that this image of what people thought your son was - and again, these images, some of them were accurate and some were not - but nevertheless, they were being projected on somebody you knew so well, your son.
Ms. SHEPARD: Right. One of the reasons that we decided to go ahead with the book and call it "The Meaning of Matthew" is I wanted everyone in the public who knew him as Matthew and knew - felt they knew that Matthew…
Ms. SHEPARD: …to really know who Matt was because that's who he was to us. He was Matt, Matty(ph), Mateo(ph), different variations but never Matthew to his family and friends. It was always Matt.
I just felt it was a disservice for people to think that he was some angelic, perfect child. He wasn't. He was just like everybody else. Same issues, same problems, depression. I tell people, as a college student, he did what every 21-year-old college student does. He smokes too much. He drinks too much and doesn't study enough. That's exactly what he was like.
CONAN: And he also had some difficulties stemming from an incident in Marrakesh, which he visited as a student, and got into some trouble there and was raped.
Ms. SHEPARD: Yeah. He never really recovered from that assault. It was always on his mind. Before that, he'd been very welcoming, trusting, friendly, outgoing of all people. And he became sort of - not suspicious, but his posture became even different. He began to sort of look like a victim after that. He was never really the same.
CONAN: And you could understand that. I mean, he was also…
Ms. SHEPARD: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
CONAN: Well, to put it mildly, not a big man.
Ms. SHEPARD: No. He was very diminutive. And his - I think rape victims - there was a tendency in Matt, maybe - I don't know if it's common to many or all -but to blame themselves for what happened to them to - for some - search for some reason why it happened to them. He never really came to grips with the situation.
CONAN: And then, to be in put in the case of being, I guess, the ultimate victim and particularly being - the image that so many people have so much trouble with is him strapped, tied to that fence, and left there.
Ms. SHEPARD: Right. There was a - there was some speculation before the facts were actually known that he had been tied in a crucifixion pose by the wording of the young man who found him, saying he'd been tied up like a scarecrow. Of course, that's a vision that would come to mind. But even after it was revealed or explained during the trial that that's not how he was found, the people, the press just didn't want to give up that image.
And I've tried very hard to explain to them that is not how they left him. That is not what it was like. This is what it was like. It was more real. It was not a pose. It was - he was a victim. He was a victim of a horrible crime, a horrible beating crime.
CONAN: Judy Shepard is the author of "The Meaning of Matthew: My Son's Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed." If you'd like to speak with her, 800-989-8255, email us email@example.com. Alicia(ph) is on the line with us from Tucson.
ALICIA (Caller): Hi, Judy. It's such an honor to speak to you. I was a classmate of Matt's at Crest Hill and at Dean Morgan in Casper, and also was a student in Laramie that fall when he was killed.
And I'd seen him on campus, had, you know, nodded hello, hadn't had a chance to reconnect. And you know, I just want you to know that there are a lot of us Wyoming kids out here in the world who have taken what happened and taken what we knew Matt, like you were talking a while ago; he was never Matthew to me. He was always Matt.
Ms. SHEPARD: Right.
ALICIA: And we have not stopped talking. And…
Ms. SHEPARD: Oh, thank you.
ALICIA: …we will never forget. So…
Ms. SHEPARD: Thanks, Alicia.
ALICIA: Yeah. And you know, it - I never miss an opportunity to tell people about him and to talk about, you know, what I view his meaning to the world is. And he's such a symbol. And we always - I always knew that great things would come from him that I just, you know, this is not what I had in mind.
Ms. SHEPARD: We didn't have that in mind either, but I appreciate your words. Thank you so much.
ALICIA: Absolutely. Yup. Thank you.
CONAN: And thanks, Alicia.
CONAN: And one of the things that you write about in the book and, in fact, I think some of your husband's words as well, your feelings about the state of Wyoming, not that homophobia is exactly unknown there, but that the state was tarred with a very broad brush.
Ms. SHEPARD: It was. And it was a very unfair thing to do. Those two young men in Laramie were - they're anomalies to Laramie, to the state. They weren't -they don't represent us in any way. It was interesting that Wyoming State Tourism Office got calls from hundreds of people saying, we will never come to Wyoming. You just breed haters out there. You must teach them hate. Nothing could be further from the truth.
What happened in Laramie happens all over the world still. In every demographic, every little community, those people exist. Why this particular story hung on in people's minds, I'm not really sure. But to think that Laramie or Wyoming is at all represented by that is just unfair.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Carol(ph). And Carol with us from Kansas City.
CAROL (Caller): Hi, Judy. It's so nice to hear you on the radio. I followed your son's story very closely. I had a son who was gay, who very much like Matthew suffered from depression and self-esteem problems, had to leave the military, which he loved, because of his sexual preference and in 1994, committed suicide. So…
Ms. SHEPARD: I'm so sorry.
CAROL: …when I tell you that I have cried for Matthew many times as I cried for my own son because these are such special kids. They're not perfect, you're right. They're not angels. But you know what? They had so much to give the world. And I'm sorry you lost Matthew. I'm sorry I lost Kevin(ph). But just know that he is in my heart all the time, as my own son is.
Ms. SHEPARD: Well, thank you very much, Carol. I appreciate that very much.
CAROL: Good for you for keeping the word out there.
Ms. SHEPARD: Thank you. Thank you for your call.
CONAN: Carol, thank you. I wonder if you've heard similar sentiments from other mothers.
Ms. SHEPARD: Oh, yeah. For sure. We, as parents of gay children, we see what society has done to us and to them. We somehow either intentionally or unintentionally, perhaps, indoctrinate everyone to think that being gay is wrong. It isn't wrong. It's just who you are. It's the way you're born. It's just who you are. And nothing about that makes our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered children different than any other children except who they love.
And at the end of the day, does that really matter to anybody? It's their life. It's who they are. And to try to convince them that they're wrong only damages them irreparably, and suicide is often, often a tragic result of that.
CONAN: We're talking with Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard. Her new book is "The Meaning of Matthew: My Son's Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
You say a world transformed. Obviously, your world has been transformed; your family's world has been transformed.
Ms. SHEPARD: Right.
CONAN: Did you mean that as a broader metaphor?
Ms. SHEPARD: Well, yes, I did. I don't know. It may seem a little too big, I don't know. But the very beginning after Matt's death, we began getting news and reports that Web sites had been set up all over the world about Matt. Some were very overwhelming in their scope.
But we knew that people internationally were reading about Matt simply because of the power of the Internet, something that was new to the time and totally unexpected, from our point of view. But what happened to Matt has led to other things.
We now have public discussions, at least in this country, about the gay communities, and we have same-sex marriage in places around the world and a larger acceptance of the gay community.
It's - I don't know if it's what happened to Matt or if it's everything that came from that area, from that time period, from people who are involved, from the activists that it spawned. There's just so much more going on now in regard to the gay community that started a couple of years before Matt was killed, and now has blossomed into a full-time, active movement - even worldwide, I think.
"The Laramie Project," the play "The Laramie Project" has had a lot to do with keeping Matt's story alive and to tell the reactions that people of Laramie and Wyoming, how they felt about what happened.
Ms. SHEPARD: And when you see yourself on stage, when you watch "The Laramie Project" - because the demographic is represented on that stage; you will see yourself up there - it causes you to think about what have you done that is right, what have you done that is wrong, and what have you done to change things.
CONAN: Let's get Michael(ph) on the line. Michael, calling from St. Louis.
MICHAEL (Caller): Hi. I remember 11 years ago when this happened, I was just about to graduate college and my mom was passing away. And I thought to myself - I'm a homosexual myself - and not for myself what would happen being the victim of a hate crime, but what my parents would have to go through.
My question, though, is this. I'm very concerned about legislating over what's in somebody's mind when they commit the crime. What happened to your son was absolutely unspeakable, but should the punishment be worse because of what their motivations were? That's what I need convincing of.
Ms. SHEPARD: Well, I'm happy to try, Mike(ph), and I appreciate your call. I used to think, before what happened to Matt, that crime was crime and all crime had an element of hate.
I was in high school, the '60s, during the civil rights movement, and I saw what hate did to a collection of people. I understood the reasons to legislate the civil rights era for hate crimes against a race, religion and ethnicity because that's what we were seeing, was hate directed at a community of people.
We understood that a cross burning in someone's yard wasn't meant to intimidate the owner of the property, but it was meant to intimidate the entire African-American community. It represented lynching and mob mentality and the KKK and all that hate that was so visible.
What we see now is that hate directed toward the gay community, toward Islam, toward all kinds of things that we don't understand, that we fear. Hate- crime legislation - well, let me kind of back up here a minute. It wasn't those two men's thoughts that murdered Matt; it was their actions. And they singled out Matt solely because he was gay. That made it the hate crime.
They targeted a member of a minority community because they felt he was especially vulnerable for many reasons. Often, victims of hate crimes - try to get people because they're gay. They won't report the crime because they're afraid of being outed or being re-victimized.
That's one of the reasons for the hate-crime legislation, is that it will add uniform, consistency to the way we report hate crimes and the way they happen. We can't really address them until we find out why they're happening, how they're happening, where they're happening. It's a crime meant to terrorize the community, not so much the individual alone but the community.
Ms. SHEPARD: It has a rebounding effect on that community. There were people leaving Laramie right and left after Matt was killed because they were gay. They feared for their own safety now. It wasn't a crime committed against Matt alone. They viewed it as a crime against their life. And…
CONAN: And Michael…
Ms. SHEPARD: …that's exactly what they felt.
CONAN: …I want to thank you for the call. And I don't mean to cut you off, but I wanted to make room for one last call. We just have a few seconds left. Isaac(ph) is with us…
Ms. SHEPARD: Thank you, Michael.
CONAN: …from Napa, California.
ISAAC (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to say hello. I had very fond memories of Matt. I went to school with him. And although this incident is awful, it really has brought some awareness of some pretty backward thinking in that corner of the world.
And for that, I think it's - the only thing positive that's come of a terrible situation, you know. A lot of people are aware that there needs to be some adjustments to the way people are thinking in Wyoming and in some of the areas that just haven't been affected by these types of crimes.
Ms. SHEPARD: That's true, Isaac.
CONAN: And Isaac, you're going to get the last word. Thanks very much for the phone call.
ISAAC: Hey, have a good one, guys.
Ms. SHEPARD: Thank you.
CONAN: Judy Shepard, thanks so much for your time.
Ms. SHEPARD: Thank you, Neal. I appreciate it.
CONAN: Judy Shepard's book is "The Meaning of Matthew: My Son's Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed." You can read an excerpt on our Web site about how she found out her son was attacked, and when she was awakened in Saudi Arabia by an early morning phone call. It's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Tomorrow, for 100 bucks, you can buy the password to almost anyone's email account. We'll talk about how secure we are online. Plus, LeVar Burton on the end of "Reading Rainbow" and of course, about playing Geordi La Forge.
It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.