EXCLUSIVE: Judy and Dennis Shepard reflect on 20 years after Matthew Shepard’s death

by MK Scott

It is hard to believe that October 12th will be the 20th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard. It all started on the night of October 6, 1998, when Matthew Shepard was lured to an open field and was tied up to a fence and tortured for days. Not since the days of the AIDS crisis, both the LGBTQ and straight community came together to help put hate crime legislation into law. Yes, Matthew was known as being the face of combating hate crimes.

I first met Judy Shepard in the fall of 2001 during her visit to Seattle to appear as a keynote speaker at the screening of a documentary called Journey to a Hate Free Millennium at the old Opera House. In 2009, I met up with Shepard again at a cocktail party in Portland; so when I had a chance to actually interview this amazing woman (and meeting her incredible husband) at the National Conference of LGBTQ Journalists on September 8th in Palm Springs, CA I seized the opportunity.

Earlier in the day, the Shepards spoke to a jam packed room of over 200 journalists and when it was all over the audience got up and gave them a standing ovation that lasted for over 10 minutes. This was an amazing opportunity to reflect on the past 20 years and we got to go into detail of what we discussed 17 years ago.

MK Scott: It’s been a joy to finally get a chance to chat with you, because I first met you back in 2001. Do you remember your last conversation with Matt?

Judy Shepard: Yes. It was a couple of days before he was taken. It was about his unpaid cellphone bill.

Dennis Shepard: Well, there are two different ones. One is the last one I had with him face to face which is when we gave him our old, ’78 Bronco. We went out and detailed it. And then worked on that together, cleaning it up, and then before he left gave him a big hug and told him I loved him. And then when we were in Saudi he called and the last time I talked to him on the phone call, we were just seeing how he was doing and stuff, again, just both of us said; I love you. And that was it.

MK: And in those 20 years what have you both learned the most?

Dennis: I learned that people can regress rather quickly when they have the encouragement to do so. The steps for American tours, complete social equality and justice in the last two years is we’ve returned to the era of the caveman. And it’s going to be very difficult to pull up Pandora’s Box and start cleaning up the mess.

MK: Now what advice would you give in the age of Trump and the current administration? What advice would you get to LBGT youth, and their parents?

Judy: Write letters, call your congressman, join the parades, protest, talk, talk, talk.

Dennis: Run for office.

Judy: Run for office. Working the campaign. Get involved. Don’t stay &

Dennis: Be visible and vocal.

Judy: Yeah.

MK: This is an interesting question. What would have been Matt’s legacy? What was his dream? Or what would be his way to leave his mark if he had lived?

Judy: His dream was to be part of the Foreign Service. He was always rooting for the underdog. And when we moved to Saudi he saw what actually happens when the government sends aid to countries, but the aid never gets to the people who live there. It only lines the pockets of those in power. And it was infuriating to him. So that was, at that age, that was his dream, was to do something along those lines.

MK: Now, and I’m actually Facebook friends with Jane Clementi and Tyler’s brother and so forth. Have you ever reached out to her?

Judy: I’ve met her several times. In New York. And &

Dennis: Done a couple of events.

Judy: Yeah, we’ve done events together.

MK: Yeah. Because I had heard that there was a choir that was going to be doing a tribute to Matthew, because I had just seen that the Seattle Men’s Chorus had done a tribute to Tyler called ‘Tyler’s Suite,’ I think. Yeah, so that was interesting. So in the aftermath, after the tragedy 20 years, the community came together. And I had mentioned this to you when I first met you (in 2001) that I believe that unity needs to come within the community, but the thing is, is that, especially at that particular time they really didn’t really come together till after a tragedy happened. You know? And it may be the last time that the community really came together was during marriage equality, and that really wasn’t 100% come together either. So what needs to happen in order to be able to create unity?

Dennis: Respect within the community before we worry about that, because you can’t have, if you don’t have respect for others within your community, the trans community versus the black lesbian versus the white gay man, how are you going to have unity against, become the face of unity, against those who are trying to take your privileges and rights away.

Judy: Exactly. One of the most disappointing things we discovered was the &

MK: Actually you kind of mentioned that….

Judy: Yeah, the discrimination against others in your own community. That’s disheartening. It’s backwards.

MK: When I mentioned it to you (in 2001), you really, you know, you knew exactly what I meant by that.

Judy: Mm-hmm.

MK: How has the Foundation helped the community or, I’m sorry, how will the Foundation help the community in the next 20 years?

Judy: Oh, that’s a really good question.

MK: Do you have any long range goals, now that you’ve been around for 20 years? how is the next 20 years?

Judy: What I’ve learned is long range goals just don’t work.

MK: (Laugh)

Judy: You make plans and God laughs. I just have felt over the last 20 years one of the things that I have learned is that we have tried to be proactive again and again.

MK: Exactly.

Judy: This is the best we’ve been at it, but we are largely reacting. And I think also rights organizations. And if nothing proves that it was the election of 2016.

MK: Yes.

Judy: It changed everything. Our long-range plans are really we just want to shut the door because we’re not needed.

MK: Now, would you have known like 20, 25 years ago that you would’ve been an incredible figure and activist?

Judy: Oh, no.

MK: (Laugh)

Judy: We wouldn’t have been the (00:07:01) parents. I would’ve been the mom in the kitchen baking cookies. Dennis would be calling and organizing, but we would not have been the lectern people.

MK: Right. I have one more question. What has the, oh, I’m sorry, what & I can’t even read my notes. Okay & what has impacted both of you the most in the last 20 years?

Dennis: Matt’s death.

Judy: Yeah, just completely Matt.

Dennis: And the realization that he is not considered a full human being in America with all the rights and privileges of an American citizen born in this country, and raised in the middle of the United States. That’s the thing that, to me.

Judy: It’s just literally actually feeling the fear of the community itself. But the hate directed at the communities. Both of those things are powerful and lessons learned.

Dennis: And overwhelming and disappointing.

MK: And then also a follow up to that is would you have liked to set the fact that Matthew is considered to be, you know, a poster of, you know, of hate? You know? And how do you feel about that?

Judy: Are you asking about Matt’s, like the pictures of Matt on the Westboro?

MK: Yes.

Judy: You know, just in regard to them in particular, and all those sorts of people, that I, we just don’t give them any time of day or power over us. They’re just ridiculous people who, for whatever reason, decided their world needs to be full of hate instead of love.

MK: Right.

Dennis: It’s where they can get attention instead of becoming good citizens and doing good. They spend all their time trying to tear down what is good.

MK: Thank you so much.

For more information on the work of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, visit their website at matthewshepard,org

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