Matthew Sheppard's Mom Weighs In On Anti-Gay Hate Crimes
JACKI LYDEN, host:
I'm Jacki Lyden, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.
We're three weeks to the day before the hugely important midterm elections in this country, and we'll look ahead with two women, well-steeped in politics, in a few minutes.
First, we want to continue our discussion on the violence and bullying of gays in this country by taking you back to October of 1998. That's when college student Matthew Shepard was found beaten, unconscious and tied to a fence near Laramie, Wyoming. His attackers targeted him because he was gay. Twelve years ago today, Shepard died from injuries he sustained during that assault. His attackers received multiple life sentences.
As we've heard, it's difficult to suggest that gays and lesbians have found greater tolerance in this country since Shepard's death, especially in light of the violence we discussed and a spate of recent suicides of gay students pushed to the edge by bullying.
Joining me now to talk about helping gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered young people deal with harassment and other challenges is Judy Shepard. She's the mother of Matthew Shepard and co-founder of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which works to advance social justice, diversity education and equality for homosexual, bisexual and transsexual people.
She joined us in the studio late last week, before word of the Bronx violence against gay men came to light. We spoke first about what she remembered about her son Matthew.
Ms. JUDY SHEPARD (Co-founder, Matthew Shepard Foundation): Well, he was a 21-year-old college student who, like most college students I remember in my past, drank too much and didn't study enough. He was gay and out and proud of who he was and who he was becoming. He had a smile, like all mothers say, that would light up a room, great sense of humor, very empathetic and kind, really cared about humanity.
LYDEN: And how do you feel about the progress that this country's made in acceptance and diversity awareness and education in the years since his death? Because his murder was absolutely a galvanizing force.
Ms. SHEPARD: I started speaking at colleges soon after the trials were over of the two men who murdered Matt. And I found on the students' faces then, and their loved ones, this great fear and trepidation about their future.
Now when I meet with them, I see a sense of entitlement, that they understand they're being denied basic civil rights. They have every right to everything that every American has access to, equality across the board, and they know how to get it. And that's what they're going to do.
So yes, I would say that the younger generation in particular, they get it. I am horrified by the recent spate of teen suicides related to the gay and lesbian issue. I think it's tragic that this is still happening.
But I still in my heart of hearts think that, overall, things have gotten much, much better.
LYDEN: About a year ago, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which President Obama signed into law. Now, James Byrd, we'll remember, was the African-American man who was brutally killed by white men in rural Texas. Would you explain what this law covers, please?
Ms. SHEPARD: There was a federal hate crime law already on the books that covered race, religion and ethnicity. The Matthew Shepard-James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act added to the existing law sexual orientation, gender identity, women and disability. And it expands the parameters of the law so that the federal government can step in, in cases where the community cannot afford or is unwilling to prosecute a hate crime.
And we know it's not going to prevent crimes. If laws prevented crimes, we wouldn't need prisons. But what the law did do was send a message of respect to the law enforcement agencies and to the public at large that we recognize the gay community as an oppressed group.
LYDEN: What do you think the law would've meant to your son?
Ms. SHEPARD: Oh, a lot, just because of the recognition of his community. This has been a long time coming, and now we have precedent-setting language in federal law we're hoping will be a building block for future legislation.
LYDEN: Judy Shepard, you mentioned at the outset of our interview that you feel that the young people that you speak to today, or the people you speak to -gay, transgendered, bisexual - have a sense of their rights. But we've also recently seen this tragic spate of suicides, with Tyler Clementi of Rutgers perhaps being the most high-profile. What more could we be doing as a nation?
Ms. SHEPARD: Well, we're finally beginning to recognize the effect of cyber-bullying and the long arm of the Internet in a negative sense, especially in regard to Tyler with the Web broadcast of his sexual encounter. This is unthinkable that anyone would do that, thinking it was okay to do that to his roommate or another human being, period.
As a nation, we need to wake up that this is a situation that is not going to get better until we take action of some kind in a public sense. Kids are coming out younger and younger now. It used to be, my generation, it was after college or moving away or, you know, something like - now it's middle school. This is a whole situation that the public school system is going to have to figure out how to deal with.
LYDEN: And do you feel that really everyone has a responsibility here?
Ms. SHEPARD: Oh, I do. Everybody has a responsibility. Actually, that's part of the problem. We find lots of parents who are not only reluctant to talk about the gay issue but sexuality in general.
LYDEN: As a parent, have your views about how to help gay teenagers changed in any way over the last 12 years, since your son's death?
Ms. SHEPARD: We learn more. You know, I've learned more about how other families accept or don't accept their children, and I'm happy to report that more and more families are becoming accepting of their gay children or gay family members, not even necessarily their children.
As a family, we wouldn't have changed anything we had done. But my husband and I were products of the '60s, which was about acceptance of everyone.
Now, our parents were from a different generation. My mother, when Matt told her that he was gay, she was fine with it, but she was not fine with Matt's friends. Given time, she would have been, but the initial I love you no matter what was what came out of her mouth.
And I think that we're finding more and more families are more willing to be educated about the community than they were in the past.
LYDEN: What do you think Matthew would say if he were here today about the changes he sees happening and the work that still needs to be done?
Ms. SHEPARD: Well, I think he would be gratified that weve come as far as we have. Matt and I had a discussion the summer before he was killed about the same-sex marriage issue in Hawaii, and he asked me if I thought same-sex couples would ever be allowed to marry. And I said, now I think you'll see it in your lifetime, but I don't think I will see it. Ironically, it happened just the opposite.
We need the younger generation to vote and to participate and be part of the system and actually run for office before many things actually happen. All we have to do is listen to the rhetoric going on on the Senate floor about don't ask, don't tell, and the same hateful remarks are still coming out. So, you know, we have work to be done.
LYDEN: Judy Shepard is the co-founder of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an education and advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people. It's named for her son, who died 12 years ago today. Judy Shepard, really, it's been an honor to have you.
Ms. SHEPARD: Thank you, Jacki.
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