By Judy and Dennis Shepard
When people stop to think about how long it’s been since the horrific hate crime that took our son’s life, they tell us they can’t believe it. They look at us with tears in their eyes. We can’t count the number of people who have broken into tears upon meeting us. To them, we say: Thank you, but please don’t overlook those who are being discriminated against now. There is nothing more we can do for Matt, but we can continue to do good work in his memory and try to prevent the same thing from happening to other people’s children.
Nineteen years ago, our family suffered a tremendous loss, one that the entire world shared with us through the media. It was the first of many somber Octobers to come. It was a senseless act of violence that changed the course of our lives forever. But friends and strangers alike stood with us and have continued to stand with us for almost two decades, now.
A collective grief and outrage has awakened among the LGBTQ+ community and its allies after endless decades of cruelty and exclusion. We are now witness to that collective outrage surfacing in the mainstream today. Between the rolling back of Title IX obligations for transgender youth to be able to use the bathroom of their choice in school, to this administration’s heavy-handed (or in this case, heavy-thumbed) transgender military ban tweets and many other similar attacks, it feels pretty obvious that this community is being targeted again. How can this be? How can it be 2017, and still we don’t have full equality? Or at least a government that believes in the basic human rights of all of its citizens? These are the things we are forced to reflect on every October.
During this time, we also think of Matt. He came to represent all those who were discriminated against or whose lives were stolen from us too soon. We know all too well the policies the current administration is trying to impose on the country are a direct assault on our community and nothing more than shameful discrimination.
We have embraced diversity and continue to tell our stories, which is something that helps many more people than you might imagine.
But because of our supporters, and our work that they have supported to “Erase Hate,” we have an even stronger sense of urgency. Our foundation exists because strangers sent gifts they hoped we could use to make a difference. Because of their love, their determination and their thundering cries for justice, we knew we had an opportunity and an obligation to devote our lives to demanding full equality. So we continue traveling the country, speaking where we are needed. Sometimes when we are not invited. Or worse, disinvited. Despite the current climate in our country, we are still being welcomed by schools and community theaters performing “The Laramie Project.” In fact, one teen – whom we are honoring at our 2017 gala – took it upon herself to reach out to 49 schools or theaters to have them sign on to her initiative: “The Laramie Project” Project. Each of these performances honored a victim of the Pulse nightclub shooting.
Our youth are our future. And these engaged idealists who know how to love and how to spread that love will help us change the world.
That fateful October, 19 years ago, we were surrounded by love. And we turned that into work – good work that is helping people every day. We have embraced diversity and continue to tell our stories, which is something that helps many more people than you might imagine.
What started as a single family experiencing and trying to heal from tragedy has grown into a proud and dignified tribute to all who have experienced discrimination, harm and loss at the hands of bigotry and bias. With the American people’s support and strength, we will continue this work as long as this message is needed. We see every day how, despite amazing advances, the civil rights and dignity of all who differ from society’s expectations still are threatened by ignorance and hatred.
The Matthew Shepard Foundation stands strong in 2017 because of those who stand with us as we continue to persuade people to make a difference every day. Please, be one of those people. Erase hate in your corner of the country or the world. If you and all those around you do that, with heart, every day, we will finally live in the hate-free world we seek and deserve.
Judy and Dennis Shepard