Transforming tragedy into a message of nonviolence

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Mother of hate-crime victim coming to Evergreen High School

By Sandy Barnes

Fourteen years after her son’s brutal death, Judy Shepard tearfully speaks about the tragedy and its effect on her life.

“It doesn’t get easier,” Shepard while describing the loss of her son, who was the victim of a high-profile hate crime in Wyoming.

Since the anti-gay murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, his mother has shared the story of his life and the aftermath of loss in a book she has written, and through her work as an international gay-rights activist.

Keeping that story alive and educating people has become her mission in life, said Shepard.

Although she believes progress has been made, Shepard said the problem of violence directed toward people regarded as different from mainstream society still exists and needs to be addressed.

This Thursday, Oct. 11, Shepard is coming to Evergreen High School for a book signing and to discuss the work she and others are doing through the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

Shepard said she decided to write the book titled “The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie and a World Transformed” to help people understand the true nature of her son and the crime against him. The book also chronicles the overwhelming response from people across the country who held vigils and memorial services honoring Matthew.

Producing the book and speaking out against violence generated by hatred toward people who are different also has given Shepard and her husband, Dennis, a purpose, she said. 

“It was a way of working through the grieving process — and still is,” said Shepard.

In the intervening years, the media also have helped bring attention to the occurrence of hate crimes, including offenses against homosexuals, said Shepard.

Matthew’s death took place during a particularly violent time in the country, Shepard remarked. The massacre of students at Columbine High School took place a few months after Matthew Shepard was fatally beaten by two men. The dragging death of James Byrd Jr. occurred the same year that Matthew was murdered.

“The reason we started the foundation was we thought the younger generation was coming into a world that was very hostile,” said Shepard. 

Shepard directs her efforts toward people who are receptive to hearing her message of tolerance and nonviolence. When asked about attempts to communicate with groups like Focus on the Family, Shepard said she believes her time can be better spent. 

“I know my limitations,” she said.

Working with many other people, Shepard successfully advocated for the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act that was passed in 2010. The federal bill expanded civil-rights protection to people of all sexual orientations.

While in Evergreen, Shepard is also promoting a play titled the “Laramie Project,” which the Evergreen Players are producing. The play tells the story of the town’s reaction to her son’s tragedy through its characters.

“Dennis and Judy fully support it because it is based on fact,” said Susan Burk, “Laramie Project” specialist for the foundation.

Burk said the play is important for young people to see because it deals with the issue of bullying.

Burk was working as a television producer in Wyoming and covered the incident in 1998.

“It shocked all of us,” she said. “The town of Laramie is still recovering. But it could happen anywhere.”

Shepard will be at the high school from 3 to 5 p.m. Oct. 11. The event will take place in front of the library at Evergreen High School. The public is welcome.

The book signing is a partnership between HearthFire Books’ Kindness Corner, Evergreen High School’s Diversity Day, and Evergreen Players’ production of “The Laramie Project,” which runs from Oct. 19 through Nov. 11.

Contact reporter Sandy Barnes at sandy@evergreenco.com or call 303-350-1042.