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Matthew Shepard’s Parents Vow to Continue Fight for Equality at Steptoe Pride Month Event

June 25, 2019


From left to right: Josh Oppenheimer, associate at Steptoe & Johnson LLP; Judy and Dennis Shepard, parents of Matthew Shepard; and Steptoe chair Philip R. West.

The D.C. legal community continued its observance of Pride Month, with Steptoe & Johnson LLP hosting a discussion on June 13 featuring the parents of Matthew Shepard, whose death in 1998 helped to galvanize the gay rights movement in the United States. The 21-year-old Shepard was abducted, beaten, and killed near Laramie, Wyoming, because he was gay.

In the aftermath of their son’s death, Judy and Dennis Shepard established the Matthew Shepard Foundation to combat hate crimes of all kinds through local, regional, and national outreach initiatives that empower individuals to address hate in their communities and create safer environments for all to thrive.

The Shepards recalled the foundation’s origination and its push for the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in October 2009. (Byrd, an African American hate-crime victim, died in 1998 after he was tied him to a truck then dragged to death by two white supremacists in Jasper, Texas.)

The act expanded the 1969 U.S federal hate crime law to include crimes motivated by the victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. It also gives federal authorities greater ability to engage in hate crime investigations and requires the Federal Bureau of Investigation to track statistics on hate crimes based on gender and gender identity.

During the discussion, the Shepards recalled their son as more than just a victim. Matthew first came out over the phone to his mother when he was an 18-year-old freshman at North Carolina’s Catawba College. Judy said she already knew he was gay before he came out.

“I don’t know why I had an idea that Matt might be gay,” she said before revealing that some of her older gay friends wondered that perhaps it was because Matthew’s Halloween costume three years in a row was Dolly Parton. “There was never a question that he would be accepted because he was gay. If ever there was a time when he needed a mom and dad, it was then.” Matthew soon after came out to his father in person at a family gathering in Minnesota.

Dennis Shepard recalled Matthew’s love for theater, television movies, pop trivia, and politics. “Matthew’s interest in politics started when he was eight. He knew all the local politicians and about many political issues. He could tell you who you should and shouldn’t vote for and why. He continued his interest in politics throughout the rest of his life,” Dennis said.

Matthew wanted to work at the U.S. State Department. He’d graduated from high school at the American School in Switzerland (at the time his parents lived in Saudi Arabia because of Dennis’s work at Saudi Aramco, a petroleum and natural gas company). Matthew spoke five languages: Italian, German, English, Arabic, and Japanese. He was studying French when he died.

Following the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, all but five states — Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, and Wyoming — have enacted laws addressing hate crimes. However, employers in 29 states can still fire LGBTQ people because of their sexual orientation.

“Hate crimes have gone up exponentially [in the United States] since 2015,” Judy said. “There is a lot of mistrust in law enforcement from all of the marginalized communities, not just the gay community. People just don’t feel safe anymore. If you’re not a straight, white, Christian man in today’s world, I’m worried about you. I’m worried about your safety and future.”

“But we know that there are more good people out there than those who want to pull others down, keep them from achieving success and equality. It’s just that those who oppose us are much louder,” she continued. “We all have a role to play in making the world better, not just for the LGBTQ community but for all marginalized people. That’s what the [Matthew Shepard] foundation does.”

Judy reminded lawyers about their part in fighting for justice. “Lawyers play an extraordinary role in making things better,” she said. “Your knowledge, your expertise, your contacts in the world can help bring things forward for a better and safer life.”