Judy Shepard Leads Conversations on Hate Crimes and "The Laramie Project"
As Judy Shepard is welcomed to the stage in the Center for the Performing Arts, at Governors State University she pauses after the initial greeting to tell the audience, “You can laugh. I’m funny—sometimes.”
The tension in the room drifts away. It’s difficult for emotions not to run high, Shepard was at Governors State to share the story of her son Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student whose murder in October 1998 became one of the nation’s most high profile hate crime cases. The brutual murder forms the basis for the play “The Laramie Project,” which debuts at GSU the first weekend of November.
Shepard transports the audience to her and her son’s hometown in Wyoming, telling of its small population. It is home to the first national park, the first national forest, and the first national monument. She struggles to articulate its beauty.
”Nowhere feels the same or smells the same. I want you to know how it feels to live in Laramie.” She muses over the land, “maybe that’s why Matthew’s story stuck— the scenic landscape of it.”
She lists other reasons people were so drawn to Matthew's story: the level of brutality, the fact that this was the first time the media reported on a gay hate crime respectfully, the success of “The Laramie Project,” or perhaps because they could relate to Matthew's story. Regardless of the reason, Wyoming is now known for something else: the murder of her son. And Judy and Dennis Shepard are determined to keep their son and his spirit alive. Having founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation in his honor, they visit schools, town halls, and theaters across the world and tell Matthew’s story to initiate difficult conversations in the communities.
Now if you travel to Wyoming and ask about Matthew, Shepard claims you’ll get one of three responses: “’I’d love to talk about it,’ ‘I never want to talk about it again,’ or ‘Get away from me.’”
But to Shepard, “If they’re upset about it, they should have done something.”
After telling Matthew’s story, Shepard opened the floor to questions to her Governors State audience. Those attending asked her about whether a memorial has been erected, if she has forgiven the men who murdered Matthew, and about Matthew’s brother, Logan.
The conversation is intermixed with laughter and as serious topics are breached Shepard answers the questions with grace to create a dialogue between her and the audience that feels, undeniably, comfortable. It’s not until she is asked if Matthew’s friends keep in touch with her does she become emotional. She cries at their caring and the love they show him, even now. In that moment, the mission of the foundation is clear: spread love.
The only way of fulfilling the mission of the foundation is to be proactive. Shepard implored, “I’m not a flame thrower. I’ll light the fire under you, and it’s your job to reach out to your congressmen or your senators and put their feet to the fire.”
Her own work has resulted in the creation of the Matthew Shepard Act, which expanded hate crime laws in America to encompass crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. She sees even bigger change happening in the future, as long as those who care continue campaigning for what they believe in, “I think every school should be performing ‘The Laramie Project.’ We need to think about the future, what are we doing right now.”
When asked how she can talk about the murder of her son as often as she does, she thinks only of what Matthew would have been doing if he was alive: “He would have been doing this. The real tragedy is those who are too scared to come out, to be themselves, and live their best lives.”