At the historic Stonewall Inn on Thursday, 16 November, the Matthew Shepard Foundation celebrated the kick-off to its 20th anniversary.
The Erase Hate benefit featured performances by drag queens and LGBTI musicians and comedians. All the songs performed that night were from 1998, the year Shepard died.
GSN spoke with Dennis and Judy Shepard, Matthew’s parents and the founders of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, about their son and the impact his story continues to make across the world.
The Laramie Project
The Laramie Project is probably one of the best-known works surrounding Shepard’s death. The play was based on real-life interviews with those who knew Shepard and those who lived in Laramie during the aftermath of Shepard’s murder.
‘[It’s] totally based on real interviews. It will be the truth forever,’ Judy says of the play.
This year, the Matthew Shepard Foundation partnered with the OnePULSE Foundation. The two groups plan to put on performances of The Laramie Project in Orlando next summer.
This collaboration came about when Orlando residents began reaching out to the newly-founded OnePULSE Foundation seeing the similarities between Matthew Shepard’s story and what happened at the Pulse nightclub last year.
‘Our community in Orlando is still grieving,’ says Earl Crittenden, the chairman of the board of the OnePULSE Foundation. ‘We’re so frustrated that we’re still having the same conversation as the Matthew Shepard Foundation, who helped bring [these issues] to the national stage.’
According to Judy and Dennis, The Laramie Project had a profound impact on all those who participated in its creation. And now, it’s becoming more mainstream, even being taught in middle school and high school classes.
Over the years, there have been rumors that Matthew Shepard wasn’t killed because he was gay, but rather because of some drug-related drama.
On this topic, Judy recalls the words of a professor of folk history at the University of Wyoming who said that people who live somewhere where something bad happened often try to rewrite history and change the story to make it more palatable.
‘It’s comical that this conspiracy theory lives on because it’s so easily debunked,’ Judy says of the rumors.
Still, the Shepards have a good sense of humor surrounding these hurtful claims.
‘Matthew’s actually alive and living in Vegas with Elvis,’ Dennis jokes.
Back in the summer, Dennis and Judy were meant to be speaking at the CIA about diversity and LGBTI rights, only to have their invitation rescinded last minute.
As far as Dennis and Judy know, the CIA disinvited them because they felt the Foundation would only focus on LGBTI issues and not diversity more generally. The Shepards found out about the event being cancelled via email only one week before they were meant to be speaking.
‘The work we do doesn’t really have a metric,’ Judy says of the impact The Matthew Shepard Foundation has had.
The Shepards still travel around the country, raising awareness about hate crimes and educating people on tolerance and the LGBTI community more generally.
Dennis, however, was very adamant about his wife’s contribution to the national dialogue about LGBTI rights.
‘Judy’s work got the first legislation passed,’ Dennis says. ‘And when the sky didn’t fall, the next domino was to get Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repealed. And when everyone survived that, the next step was gay marriage.’
‘[This was] all done because of Judy and her supporters getting that legislation passed.’
Though it’s only been a year under the Trump administration, the Shepards have already seen some setbacks.
According to Judy, every Obama-era thing that wasn’t an official law, like executive orders or suggested regulation, has been rescinded. This is not just for LGBTI people, but for all marginalized groups.
To combat this, Dennis and Judy are emphatic about getting younger generations more politically involved, even just on local and state levels.
‘This is no time to stop your activism,’ Dennis says. ‘We need it now more than ever.’
‘Stop being so complacent about what happens and get involved,’ Judy states.
‘Grassroots forces change,’ Dennis continues. ‘It’s gotta be done on the ground level. Young people are the key to change .’
‘It’s messy, it’s not fun, it’s hard work. But it’s necessary,’ Judy says.
And, indeed, it’s hard to disagree with that.
Learn more about what the Matthew Shepard Foundation is up to here.