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US couple’s mission for acceptance for LGBT youth

By Essiba Small essiba.small@trinidadexpress.com

It is devastating enough for a parent to outlive their child; it’s worse when a child’s life is snuffed out because of crime.

And so, 15 years after their son Matthew Shepard was tortured and murdered in Wyoming, USA, because he was gay, it is understandable that Judy and Dennis Shepard have yet to find closure.

“People talk about closure, but you never find closure when you lose a child,” Judy said. 

According to news reports on the crime, Matthew was 21 and had gone to a bar in Laromie, Wyoming, to talk to Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. The two had convinced Matthew they were gay men and wanted to discuss with him the politics and struggle of the gay movement.

McKinney and Henderson led Matthew to their truck, where they pulled a gun on him and asked for his wallet. 

Media reports said it was then that McKinney told Matthew, “Guess what? We’re not gay. And you’re gonna get jacked.”

Matthew was struck in his head with a gun and driven more than a mile to a location where he was beaten and left to die in near-freezing temperatures. His body was also tied to a wooden post and his hands were tied so tightly behind his back that it was difficult for police officers to cut him free.

Judy rocked back and forth and clasped her hands tightly together and fought back tears as she spoke about a son she described as loving. 

“I knew he was gay before he came out to us. A mother knows,” she said and managed a little smile.

“Matthew loved meeting new people.

“He had an interest in politics; he had loyal friends and he gave the best hugs ever.”

“Seeing people hurt used to devastate him,” Dennis chimed in.

“He was working on his degree in political science and international relations at the University of Wyoming and could speak five different languages.”

Like any parent in their shoes, the Shepards have gone through the gamut of emotions over the years—deep sadness, despair and anger.  

The couple were living at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where Dennis was stationed for his work as a construction safety manager at Saudi Ramco when they got the news of the attack on Matthew.

“They told us he was in hospital, that it was really bad and that he wasn’t expected to survive.”

To make bad matters worse, the couple had to wait a day before getting a flight out of Saudi Arabia and had to endure a flight of more than ten hours.

“We couldn’t help but wonder if we were there in the US on that day if things would have worked out differently,” Judy said.

“Those men (McKinney and Henderson) stole something precious from us,” said Dennis.

In the days following Matthew’s murder, Judy was motivated to fight for the rights of persons like Matthew.

She brought national and international attention to hate-crime legislation at the state and federal levels and in October 2009, the United States Congress passed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act. 

Judy also founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation in 1998, which supports diversity and tolerance in youth organisations and she has authored the book The Meaning of Matthew.

The couple have travelled to over 18 countries talking to interest groups, students and parents about erasing hate in society, putting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth first and ensuring equality for all LGBT.

Their visit to this country recently, their first in the Caribbean, was facilitated by the US Embassy to help enhance efforts to improve human rights for all, including LGBT individuals.

Dennis admits that at times he still gets teary-eyed talking to people about their deceased first-born. 

“I am not ashamed to say it at all.”

The Shepards described their visit here as encouraging. Although there were a lot of questions about the work they do, Dennis said they were surprised that LGBT conversations were taboo here.

“It was only after the sessions that people came to us privately to say they had a gay son or daughter.

“Anyone can be a victim of hate crimes—a LGBT person, an African-American, someone because of their religion. 

“I was even surprised that there were no hate-crime statistics here. Of the crimes committed in this country, how many were gay-related, for instance?” 

Dennis added that he and his wife didn’t come to this country to change any laws but merely to educate people. 

“We want people to know that Matthew could be anyone’s son or brother. 

The foundation also allows LGBT youth to express themselves on the website Matthew’s Place.com.

“We want young people to know that there are other people out there like themselves,” Judy said.

According to her husband, attempted suicide rates among the LGBT community are higher than among the general population. 

“Judy has become like a mother to some of the LGBT youth who just want to be accepted.

“You should see them hugging her after we speak at forums.

“We just want to encourage them to not give up.”

The couple appealed to parents to embrace a child who “comes out” to them about their sexuality to give them the love and support they need and not reject them.

“It is a compliment when a child could trust his parents enough to say he or she is gay.” 

The two left for Jamaica following their trip here, again on their Stop Hate mission.

“Our message is not about tolerance,” Dennis said. “Our message is about acceptance.”

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