Judy Shepard: the true “mama grizzly”

When you hear the phrase “mama grizzly” thrown around as a Republican buzzword, it’s useful to think of heroic women who live up to that phrase. I had the privilege of meeting one last week, at the University of Pennsylvania.

“I was just a mom, who cared about her boys,” said the lovely 5’4″ woman to the 50 people crowding in to hear her, in a campus bookstore at the University of Pennsylvania.  “I was not a public person.”

Yet today, Judy Shepard’s life is entirely public, so much so that she said good-naturedly of her life: “I spend a lot of time on airplanes.” And on, June 27  she was one of three grand marshals in one of New York City’s largest parades: the 41st annual NYC Pride march, urging full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.

Not that Shepard herself is among them. But ever since her son, Matthew Shepard,  died nearly 12 years ago at the hands of two men who’d been looking for  a gay man to assault, Shepard and her family have worked every day to end such hate crimes.

They set up The Matthew Shepherd Foundation to “replace hate with understanding, compassion, and acceptance through educational, outreach, and advocacy programs and by continuing to tell Matthew’s story.” They fought for passage of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and when it was signed into law last fall Matthew’s name was on it. Now her husband,  oil executive Dennis Shepherd, works with the FBI to educate state and local authorities about what they need to do to comply with the new law.

But it wasn’t until last year that Judy Shepard’s own story began to be told, with the publication of The Meaning of Matthew:  My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed. Last week, her appearance at the University of Pennsylvania bookstore in Philadelphia, timed to promote the book’s release in paperback, was also a gathering of local LGBT activists during Pride Month. But like the book itself, the resulting conversation was evenly divided between the cause and the story of Judy Shepard, who was 46 the day she received that fateful phone call telling her that “something had happened” to her son.

Throughout, Shepard’s manner was fearless, welcoming, and deeply polite: as she answered every question, she then thanked the questioner for asking. When  asked about who she was before her son was murdered, she laughed and briefly described her youth, in a town of fewer than 2,000 people and a high school class that numbered only 27.  “I never thought I’d be doing anything when I grew up but getting married and having a family,” she said. She met her husband at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, and became a teacher in local schools. But soon, with the birth of Matt and his brother Logan, “I was a mom,” she said. “I’d been a schoolteacher, but mostly I wanted to take care of my family and keep them safe.”

Sometimes that care included moving everyone to Saudi Arabia when her husband’s job beckoned; sometimes it meant finding schools for her sons nowhere near her, as with Matthew in Switzerland or Logan in Minnesota.  Her younger son was still in high school, in Minnesota, when Matthew was attacked; one of the most moving scenes in Shepard’s book (written in collaboration with journalist Jon Bennett) describes the 17-year-old  saying his final goodbyes to his brother.

Shepard didn’t spend much time talking about October 9, 1998, when her son was beaten into a coma and left for dead in a Wyoming field.  Recounting that day is perhaps best left to Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project, the multi-stage theater piece that premiered in 2000 and includes interviews with the principals (including the attackers)  with an epilogue last fall that checks in with them ten years later. “That project did not come from us,” Shepard said in response to a question. “They never talked to us. And I haven’t ever seen it. I’ve seen the epilogue — maybe someday I’ll be able to watch the other.”

The play, she emphasized, was not about her son but about the community where it happened – a choice she questions. “My husband and I both went to college in Laramie,” she said. “And I can tell you that those two young men were not part of Laramie.” There’s prejudice there she said, but Laramie is no more afflicted with hate than anywhere else. “What happened to Matt could have happened anywhere. And does,” she added.

Making Laramie a symbol of hate, she added, is as false as some cultural ideas about Matthew Shepard. “I wrote this book,” she said, “because I knew Matt — my Matt. Who was a kid. He was 21 years old, and funny, and smart; he did some incredibly stupid things, like many young people and maybe especially young guys figuring out their sexuality. He had some problems, and was trying to make his way through them. It took me a while to realize that there was this other guy, someone that people only knew as a gay man who was killed for being gay. ”

That was the Matthew Shepard whose picture was carried by thousands of people in vigils before he died and protest marches after, including those at the trials of his assailants, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, and at the October 2009 signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Writing the book and examining all the stages of her life with Matt made Shepard realize how much ‘her’ Matt was part of the iconic Matthew Shepard. “I wanted to integrate the two — to bring together those two Matthews, so that he would be a real, flawed person to those who have  mourned him.”

Those mourners included Bob Schoenberg, who has directed Penn’s LGBT center for 27 years and who’d introduced Shepard to the audience that day. Schoenberg  described the way the campus had responded to the attack with vigils, memorials, and calls for action. “And on the 10th anniversary of the attack, 400 LGBT people and allies came together to talk about his legacy.” That legacy, said Shepard, is the imperative to build even more spaces where LGBT youth feel safe — which requires, she added, full equality.  “The enemy is fear,” she said, especially internalized fear that expresses itself in bullying, exclusion, and failure to protect. Or far worse, as in the 2008 case of middle-schooler Lawrence King, who was shot and killed by a classmate soon after coming out as gay.

Asked what to do to make schools safer for LGBT kids, Shepard connected it to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act still lingering in Congress.  “If teachers are afraid of being identified as gay — whether they are or not! — then kids won’t be safe. They won’t take the actions they need to take. That’s why we need ENDA now. I hope you all call your Congresspeople tomorrow and tell them, You need to vote for ENDA.”

In the meantime, Shepard’s foundation works hard to fill in some of the gaps for youth, including a separate Matthew’s Place website with extensive resources. That’s where Shepard directed a young student who asked her, “I’m trying to build a gay-straight alliance, but so many kids are afraid that they’ll be tagged as gay.  What should I do?”

“If they’re afraid of being called gay, they might have a bigger problem,” Shepard said with a wry smile.

Shepard has had to deploy that half-smile a lot during her journey. You see it in the clip above, in her response to Rep. Virginia Foxx, who called her son’s murder a ‘hoax’ on the House floor. Or when she was asked on Tuesday whether she’s ever talked to the men who killed Matthew. “They haven’t reached out,” she said. “And if you are asking about forgiveness…” The crowd chuckled at her veiled fury. “Not for the men who beat my son until — the police who found him thought he was a child, he was bent so small.” In any event, she added, “I hear Aaron McKinney thinks of himself as quite the folk hero.”

That pained smile remained when she was asked about the notorious Fred Phelps, the former civil rights attorney whose Westboro Baptist Church protested her son’s funeral and now does the same at the funerals of soldiers, claiming their deaths as retribution for tolerance of gays. “We love Fred,” she said sadly. “We’ve raised a lot of money thanks to Fred. But I feel sorry for his family. And I think if the media stopped paying attention to him, it would be better.”

In any event, Shepard and her husband are far too busy to be distracted by those who hate them. Asked “Is your life very different now? Do you feel your life is good?” she stopped for a moment before evaluating the life that pulls her to Washington one day and countless local communities the next.

“Yes, it’s good,” Shepard said. “It’s different. It’s not what I expected in my life. But it’s good.”

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