An Interview with Judy Shepard

Judy Shepard is a name known to many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people around the world. After her son Matthew’s brutal murder in 1998 forever changed the way Americans thought about gay people and anti-gay hate crimes, Shepard has become an outspoken activist for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender equality. She is the Executive Director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, established in her son’s honor to combat hate and promote social justice for all people, and frequently speaks about gay and transgender rights and her son around the world. She is also the author of _The Meaning of Matthew_, a memoir recounting her son’s all-too-brief life and Shepard’s journey from small town mother to international activist.

I spoke to Shepard on Sept. 25, the day before her reading at the Salt Lake City Public Library.

JoSelle Vanderhooft: It was very wonderful to read your book. I couldn’t put it down. It was very heartfelt, and very beautifully written.

Judy Shepard:
Why, thank you.

JV: You’re very welcome. I’m curious to know about how it came together. Was this something you’d been planning for awhile, or did it just happen within the last few years or so?

JS: I really wanted to do a book of letters. So many beautiful letters were sent to us while Matt was in the hospital and after he died, and from all walks of life and all around the world. Not just the gay community, but thousands and thousands and thousands of people sent emails and wonderful cards and little gifts and tokens of their sympathy or their outrage or all those kinds of things, and I really wanted to share that. Serendipitously, I met people in the publishing world and acquired a book agent who suggested I do the memoir first and then do the book of letters. It took me a little while to actually figure out if I wanted to do that, if I was ready to do that. It hadn’t been something I’d had in mind prior to this. I wasn’t sure I could do it, I wasn’t sure I could go back to those memories and come out of it and still do the work. But I have a good friend Jon Barrett who is the editor in chief of The Advocate magazine. We’ve been friends since shortly after Matt died, we did an interview together in Wyoming when he was a reporter for The Advocate, and I knew he’d got a couple of books in a similar situation, so we set it up. He was the writer and I was the author—quite a fine distinction there. And we worked together, and since he was very familiar with what had happened I didn’t have to start over with anything, I trusted him implicitly. It made the process much easier; we both survived it. I worked with [husband] Dennis and [younger son] Logan as well to piece together the memories as they kind of got scrambled a little bit.

JV: Of course.

JS: I wasn’t very cognizant of everything that went on. We talked about the things he [Barrett] wanted to talk about, we cleared up mistakes that were repeated in the media. I wanted people to meet my Matt. I wanted everyone else’s Matthew to be reconciled with my Matt, with our Matt, with the Matt of his family and friends.

JV: Do you remember when this book started coming together?

JS: It was probably two and a half years maybe when I first began to circulate that I was thinking about it and then it all came together on paper, getting people involved and all that. Probably it took us a year to actually get it done. I said to Jon, I keep remembering things, but don’t know when to stop. Luckily, we had an editor with a very hard deadline, so that pretty much signaled that I couldn’t just keep going.

JV: Deadlines will do that. Trust me, I know. I’d love to hear about how the whole process was writing the book. Clearly these are some very painful and precious things that you were delving into.

JS: Well, we had to go back to those memories. We had to go to that place and having been there in ma y many years, that was hard. On many days I’d think, no, I have to work on the book, and it was like I can’t go there again today, I can’t go back there today. But once we actually did start talking about it, all of us, a kind of really strange and wonderful thing happened: We began to have other memories, too. It opened the floodgate to many wonderful memories that we had of Matt. It was almost like we weren’t afraid to talk about the things that annoyed us as well as the things that we love.

I loved reading the first chapters of the book. They were just so joyous. I really got the sense of who he was.

JS: Thanks.

JV: Oh yes, it’s a book I greatly recommend. Do you have any other writing projects after this aside from the letter book?

JS: I know my own limitations. And technically I didn’t write this one. We do have a children’s book that we self-published several years ago that we are hoping may make it to a large market, but we haven’t found the right person to approach for that or the right kind of feedback yet, so that’s kind of in the works.

JV: What is the children’s book?

JS: It’s called Small Bear, Big Dreams, and it’s based on Matt’s life with his two neighborhood friends, sort of told in the genre of teddy bears in the forest.

JV: Aww.

JS: I like it very much. It deals with some very difficult issues in a very broad way. The basic message of the book is as human beings, as living creatures we need to each respect each other as who we are.

JV: Are you planning on going to the National Equality March on Oct. 11?

JS: I will be there, I will be in D.C. that day it’s also the Human Rights Campaign national dinner. I will be at that and I’m speaking on the March at Sunday. The following day I will be in New York for The Laramie Project Epilogue: Ten Years Later performance with [one of the play’s authors] Moisés [Kaufman] and the Techtonic Theatre Project.

JV: I’m not entirely sure what they’ve done for the 10th anniversary.

JS: It’s an addition to the script, an epilogue if you will. They went back and re-interviewed many of the same people and some new people regarding the changes in Laramie. Also, going to great pains to talk about the revisionist history that’s kind of come about in some circles. I’ve read a very early draft of the play. I told Moisés I would be happy to come support you, but I don’t think I can be in the audience. I’ve not been in the audience for The Laramie Project, either.

JV: When you say the revisionist history that’s come about, is it what you mention in the book about how people think that Matt was just some perfect angel?

JS: Yeah that is part of it, but it is more — I don’t know if you’re familiar with the 20/20 show about Matt five years ago that said it wasn’t really a hate crime, it was a drug deal gone bad.

Oh, yes. I saw that.

JS: There’s a contingency of folks, Mostly in Laramie is my understanding, who think that’s what happened. It’s not that uncommon for people in a community to try and figure out and explain what happened in that community and blame it on the victim, so I’m not surprised that it’s happening. But it’s very offensive to me. It would be more offensive to me if it wasn’t patently ridiculous. If they paid any attention during the trial or read the confessions, they would know that the scenario that they’re spouting was denied by the two boys [who killed Matt], so I mean how can it continue when the guys said that’s not how it happened?

JV: I know you’re really tired from the flight, and I don’t want to keep you too much longer, so just one more question:  Could you tell our readers a bit about the Matthew Shepard Foundation?

JS: What we engage in is raising awareness and educational pieces. One of my colleagues visits high schools and also works with theatre companies who do The Laramie Project, doing community talkbacks. In a nutshell we try to bring to people’s attention how insidious the emotion we call hate [is] and how nebulous it is. We have no recent projects lined up, but we do have a tremendous Web site called MatthewsPlace.com, geared towards young people and that’s where were concentrating our efforts now.

Visit the foundation at MatthewShepard.org.

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