Judy Shepard, co-founder of the Matthew Shepard Foundation along with her husband, Dennis, is an advocate for LGBTQ rights and a public speaker with a purpose.
Shepard’s son Matthew was brutally murdered in October 1998. The murder, an LGBTQ hate crime that helped to galvanize a new chapter in the gay rights movement, led to changes in policy at the federal level in the United States.
“In October of 1998, Matthew accepted a ride from a couple of young men who proceeded to rob him and beat him,” Shepard said in an interview on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in 2009. “They tied him to a fence outside of Laramie, Wyoming, and left him there to die. He was found 18 hours later and passed away four days later.”
At 2 p.m. Tuesday, July 2 in the Hall of Philosophy, Shepard will discuss “The Legacy of Matthew Shepard” as part of the Week Two Interfaith Lecture Series, “Common Good Change Agents.” Shepard will be joined by reporter and co-founder of The Atlantic’s American Futures project, James Fallows.
“I became a sort of spokeswoman for the cause — we thought people would recognize Matt’s name and hear what we had to say and listen to us, and that maybe we could change hearts and minds,” Shepard told DeGeneres.
When the attack occurred in 1998, Chautauqua Institution’s Vice President of Religion and Senior Pastor, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, was watching in horror along with the rest of the LGBTQ community.
Robinson is widely known as the first openly gay man to be elected bishop in the Episcopal Church.
“It hit (the LGBTQ community) hard because we knew it could’ve been us,” Robinson said. “The remarkable thing is that Judy Shepard, who is this shy, introverted person, turns the tragedy into the (Matthew Shepard) Foundation and this amazing work.”
When Shepard walks up to the microphone, however, Robinson said she looks “10 feet tall,” and speaks with the authority of a seasoned orator.
“The fact that she could do that is just amazing,” he said. “It’s like her personal tribute to Matt and to what she did as a mom, to change this unspeakable tragedy into something good for so many people.”
Robinson said he wanted Shepard to lecture at Chautauqua because he thought she fit Week Two’s “Common Good Change Agents” interfaith theme well.
But the prevention of hate crimes like the one that took Matthew Shepard’s life is also on Robinson’s mind.
“The most important agenda item for the future is passing the federal Equality Act,” he said. “At the moment, every state has a different set of protections for LGBTQ people. But 29 states have none. So in a majority of states, you can be fired for being gay. You can be refused an apartment, you can be thrown out of a restaurant. Until we get a federal law that covers all 50 states, LGBT people are going to be at risk.”