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National Perspective | Update

Matthew Shepard's Mother Aims to Speak With His Voice

Private woman hopes to use her time in the public spotlight to make a difference. Her gay son was beaten to death last year.

September 14, 1999|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I knew there was a safety being in a gay community, that there's physical safety in numbers. I've said that he had the walk of a victim. He had an air of, 'I'm open to speaking to you. You can hurt me if you want. You can pick on me and get away with it.' I thought that if I could see it, other people could see it. It worried me."

She always ended their frequent phone conversations with: "I love you. Be smart and be safe."

The parents' worst fears were realized when they received a phone call in the middle of the night telling them their son had been attacked. It took the Shepards nearly two days of traveling from Saudi Arabia to get to the hospital in Fort Collins, Colo., where their son lay in a coma. He had been so savagely beaten that Judy Shepard recognized him only by a distinctive bump on his ear.

Most of that time was a daze for the family members, who had to wade through media encampments, supporters and protesters to gain entrance to the hospital and attend the funeral. It was only weeks later, after she began to read some of the news accounts and letters she received, that Judy Shepard realized her son was being made a martyr by some. Much was made of his having been lashed spread-eagled to a fence--crucified, as some put it--and hundreds of Web sites were devoted to this "lost innocent," this perfect college freshman.

It wasn't the son she knew. She understood immediately that if her son could be deified around the world, he could just as easily be demonized.

"It was really important to tell the truth right away," she said. "He was not a perfect individual. He had problems. He made mistakes. What I feared was the people would see him as perfect and then those things would come out and then they would say, 'Forget it, we don't care now.' I knew that other young gay kids were struggling. It just seemed important to tell the truth for a lot of reasons."

What emerged after his death was a portrait of a young man still struggling with life's bumps. Matthew Shepard was taking drugs for depression and anxiety, he drank too much and, in his defiance of fear, may have been reckless in trusting others.

Although she was prepared for the inevitable backlash about her son's being gay, she did not anticipate the deluge of hate that would cascade down after the murder. For every Web site memorializing her son, there was another gleefully celebrating his death. His funeral was picketed by a small number of anti-gay protesters, and at least one Web site invites browsers to click and hear his screams from hell.

Judy Shepard has seen the Web sites. "To develop anger in response to them--I just don't have enough emotions to go around," she said. "I know what they've done to Matt. I just think they are ignorant. I pity them."

It's the same "dead feeling" she harbors for Henderson and McKinney. She faced Henderson at his hearing and said, "I know it sounds strange to people, but I truly feel nothing for them--no hate, no anger. It's a void."

She will attend every moment of McKinney's trial and has put her own grief process on hold until afterward. "I just don't think I could hold it together if I was going through that kind of introspection."

Using Her Platform

Shepard prefers to spend time with the foundation and to respond to the 10,000 pieces of mail and more than 80,000 e-mail messages she has received--and to use her tiny platform to prevent other hate crimes. She has testified before Congress in support of the federal hate crimes bill, which has passed the Senate and is stalled in the House. The bill would extend federal protections to sexual orientation, gender and disability.

The fledgling activist is ready. Judy Shepard is determined that her voice, tiny but resolute, will be heard.

"I'm not really sure anyone is going to listen to me, but it gives a face to a community of grief and struggle. And it gives a Middle American face for Middle America to see the problem. Whether they actually hear the words I say and agree with them, I don't know. But I think by putting myself out there and saying, 'This happened to my son; please don't let it happen to anyone else,' will make a difference for a while. I hope it does."

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