Matthew Shepard was killed in a brutal gay bashing that shocked the world.
He was abducted and tortured by two men, before being left to die – tied to a fence – near the town of Laramie, Wyoming.
Discovered 18 hours later, he was taken to hospital but died six days later on 12 October 1998 from the severe head injuries that he had suffered. He was 21.
His attackers were arrested and eventually sentenced to two-consecutive life sentences each for the crime.
His parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard subsequently created the Matthew Shepard Foundation, to raise awareness around homophobia and diversity.
On Friday (10 Oct), ahead of the anniversary of Matthew’s death, they spoke to Canada’s Daily Xtra about the Foundation’s work in raising awareness and ways to tackle homophobia.
‘People fear what they don’t know or understand. Sometimes that fear leads to violence, hatred, bias, prejudice: all those things,’ says Judy.
‘We find that cities, like for example Toronto, you find a more accepting environment because diversity is a part of everybody’s everyday life.
‘When you go to a more rural area, in the States or even in Canada, you find less acceptance because they see no diversity. They don’t understand it exists, they don’t know what it is so they’re fearful of it. Stereotypes reign supreme where there’s no diversity.’
They speak about the experience of attending their son’s funeral, and avoiding ‘haters’ who picketed the event because their son was gay. Judy, magnanimously, dismisses those who chose to protest at her son’s funeral as ‘silly’.
They also say why they didn’t push for Matthew’s killers to receive the death penalty – despite his father initially wanting to do so.
‘Judy convinced me otherwise,’ says Dennis. ‘And she was right. If you put them in prison, where no-one remembers them, they’re not on death row where they can go through the appeals and possibly get out on [a] technicality, they don’t become martyrs for something horrendous like that, to encourage others… plus we didn’t have to worry about our other son having to go through the turmoil of them possibly getting out on parole.’
‘Court appearance after court appearance for mandatory appeals…’ adds Judy. ‘I just wanted it to be over. I don’t want to ever see them again. And this is how we did that.’
‘And she was right to convince me,’ says Dennis. ‘And it took a lot of convincing.’
As he had to return to work abroad, Dennis credits his wife as the force behind the movement to keep equal rights in the public eye. He said Matthew would be hugely ‘proud’ of the work she had done since his death.
‘It’s still a mystery to a lot of people why some would be gay and some straight,’ says Judy.
‘I think ultimately people have to realize that you are who you are: It isn’t a choice you made; you just are who you are. The more folks in the gay community who tell their stories, and someone realizes, "Oh, I adore and respect my neighbor and they’re gay", their whole perspective of what the gay community represents is changed. And the more we do that, the closer we are.’
Watch the interview below.