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Speaker promotes LGBTQ acceptance

| Wednesday, April 13, 2016

In October 1998, Judy Shepard’s son Matthew was murdered in a hate crime. 17 years later, Shepard spoke as the keynote speaker for Ally Week 2016 to share a mother’s perspective on hate crimes and prejudice.

On Tuesday night, Shepard spoke about the theme of acceptance and how it applies to members of any community that may experience discrimination, not just the LGBTQ community.

“This is not just about the LGBTQ community — this is about everybody,” Shepard said. “This is not a new thing. Unfortunately, it’s something we deal with not in a positive way, so what we do now at the Matt Shepard Foundation is promote the idea that we should accept everyone for who they are. Not just members of the [LGBTQ] community, but everybody as fellow human beings because really, at the core of it, we are all the same.”

In her victim statement, a statement read to the court by the victim or their loved ones so the court gets to know the victim during a trial, Shepard said she and her family started the Matt Shepard Foundation to solidify her son’s legacy.

“While Matt was in the hospital, many people concerned about him began to send money to help defray medical costs,” she said. “As a family, we decided we would rather use that money to make something positive come from something so completely devoid of humanity. We have started the Matthew Shepard Foundation and are hoping that it will be helpful in encouraging acceptance and embracing diversity. It is one way we can honor our son.”

Shepard said she does not understand why people struggle or refuse to accept members of the LGBTQ community for who they are.

“You don’t tolerate people,” she said. “You accept them because they are who they are. You can’t change who you are. You are who you are, you love who you love and that’s just the way it is. How you choose to live your life is certainly up to you, but you are who you are and the idea that you can change any of that is, in my opinion, absurd.”

Shepard said her son’s death was a direct result of the hate that had been normalized in society.

“Matt is no longer with us because two men learned that it was okay to hate,” she said. “Somehow, somewhere they received the message that the lives of ‘the others, those people,’ are not as worthy of respect, dignity and honor as the lives of ‘us.’ They were given the impression that society condones or is at least indifferent to violence against ‘the others, the people.’”

Even though progress such as the legalization of gay marriage has been made recently, the type of violence and discrimination Matt experienced remains prevalent, Shepard said.

“When same-sex marriage became the law of the land — or should I just say when marriage, for everyone, became the law of the land — we began to feel pushback from places that did not want to honor marriage between same-sex couples,” Shepard said. “We’re facing actual, open discrimination now and we’ve taken many, many steps back when we thought we were moving forward … You can still be fired in over half the states for being gay.”

Despite the remaining legislation discriminating against the LGBTQ community, Shepard said the 2009 Federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which carries Matthew Shepard’s name, offers some hope.

“Before, [LGBTQ] was not a protected class and now it is,” Shepard said. “It’s the first time that any federal legislation actually mentions the gay and lesbian community as a protected class. It is also the first time that any legislation is actually progress in the [LGBTQ] community, so this is really a special thing.”

Tthe most powerful way to combat this discrimination is through education, Shepard said.

“We’ve become a SIC society — silent, indifferent and complacent,” she said, “For all those who ask what they can do for Matt and all the other victims of hate and hate crime, my answer is this: educate, educate, educate … It’s the key. Everything stems from ignorance. Fear, violence [and] hate stem from ignorance.”

However, Shepard said no legislation will ever be as effective as sharing a personal story and urged the audience to speak out.

“If you tell your story, then other people begin to understand what that story is about,” she said. “No one knows how to help you, no one knows what they can do for you until you share your story. It makes it personal, it makes it real. It’s so much more difficult to hate a person or discriminate against a person than it is against an abstract idea … Storytelling is how we change the world.”

Shepard placed an emphasis on the importance of allies also sharing their stories and said she believes her son’s death contributed to expanding the ally community.

“If he were here, I’m not really sure where we would be in the land of progress,” Shepard said. “I think what happened to Matt woke up the straight world about what’s going on to the gay community. Of all the mail we received, easily over half was from the straight community.”

Shepard said her and her husband’s work as allies is their attempt to carry on Matt’s work for him.

“Dennis [Shepard] and I feel like we are doing what Matt would be doing if he were still here,” she said. “If Matt were still with us, if what happened to him had not happened, then he would be doing this work … I would not be here, you all would not know who I am — it would be Matt that would be here, and that would be just fine with me.”

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About Courtney Becker

Courtney is a junior from New York City majoring in film, television and theater with a minor in journalism, and currently serving as News Editor. She is a proud resident of Pasquerilla West Hall and a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan.

Contact Courtney