Originally published Sept. 11, 2009
BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
Judy Shepard spent eight years digging into her past, recalling the excruciating details of her son Matthew's murder 11 years ago.
``I wasn't sure I could go back to those memories and come back to a good place in the present,'' Shepard says. ``With the help of my family, my husband and my son Logan, it was really hard, but not as hard as it could have been.''
In October 1998, two young men picked up Matthew Shepard in a Wyoming bar and drove him to a remote part of Laramie. They pistol whipped him, tortured him and tied him to a fence like a scarecrow. Then they left him to die.
Shepard's death became a symbol of violence against gays and galvanized activists around the globe. Judy Shepard moved to the forefront, forming the Matthew Shepard Foundation and leading the call for a gay-inclusive national hate crimes law.
``If Matt had not been killed, if I had not been in this situation, I'd be the PFLAG mom in the kitchen making cookies,'' Shepard says, referring to the support group Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. ``I would not be making speeches.''
Shepard originally wanted to publish a compilation of letters she received after Matthew died. Her agent at William Morris insisted she write about her personal tragedy.
The book begins with Shepard learning about her son's brutal beating.
``As I started to remember things, I remembered more things,'' she says. ``It was really important to me to remind people at the beginning of the book that this is my story, my memories, my truth.''
Her husband, Dennis, and Logan, now 28, helped with the process, she says.
Shepard said that when the book was finished, she ``could dispassionately read it like it was somebody else's story.''
She learned a few things about herself along the way.
``I understood that I was stronger than I thought I was when I was living through it. It didn't feel like I was being strong. It just felt like I was surviving day to day. But in telling the stories, I was stronger and able to do more than I was doing at the time.''
It was a family decision for Shepard to take a public role.
``We felt we could do that for Matt, his community, his friends. And we all knew I would go crazy if I wasn't doing something to make a difference,'' she says. ``It was my grieving process. It still is. I still keep Matt very close to me. I don't have to let go.''
Often, it's a grind.
``I speak at a lot of colleges. I get really worn down by the travel. But when it gets to the event and I meet those kids and hear their stories about triumph and tragedy, that's what motivates me,'' Shepard says. ``One of the things that came out of Matt's murder and death was a generation of activists. There's an anger, but a different anger. They believe they deserve it -- basic civil rights.''
Several weeks ago, Shepard lost a special friend: Sen. Edward Kennedy, who introduced the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
``He was just wonderful to me, personally,'' Shepard says. ``He would call me when the bill would fail and say, `We're going to get this done.' ''
The House of Representatives passed the bill in April. It passed the Senate as an amendment to the Defense Department authorization bill in July. The House and Senate versions must be reconciled before being sent to the president's desk.
Even if President Barack Obama signs the bill into law, the crimes would still be hard to prosecute.
Florida added sexual orientation to its state hate crimes law in 2001. Twenty-five hate crimes against gay people were reported statewide in 2007, including eight in South Florida.
Several gay men have suffered severe muggings recently in the Fort Lauderdale area, but no hate crime charges have been filed.
``You have to be able to prove intent and state of mind of the suspect,'' says Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti, who last year established a Hate Crimes Task Force led by BSO Cmdr. Rick Wierzbicki. ``Were they just robbing them or robbing them because they were gay?''
One man, Craig Cohen, 47, has been in a coma since two men robbed him and smashed his head on the pavement on April 6. He is now in a hospice and not expected to live, according to a neighbor and friend, Arthur Arndt.
Arndt said that as he and other friends emptied Cohen's Oakland Park apartment, they found something cruelly ironic: ``Right on his counter, he had a newspaper article about Matthew Shepard.''
Matthew's mother says she'll keep fighting until the federal law is in place and gay people have full protections.
``I don't really set goals for myself. I just believe things happen when they're supposed to,'' Shepard says. ``I take advantage of opportunities. My goal is for opportunity to meet with preparedness.''
IF YOU GO
Judy Shepard will make two public appearances during her South Florida visit:
• 4-6 p.m. Sunday, The Betsy hotel, 1440 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach
• 7 p.m. Monday, Books & Books, 927 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach
Judy Shepard portrait by Katy Tart