A Conversation With Judy Shepard
“Here We Are, 20 Years Later”
Less than two months after Matthew Shepard died, on what would have been his 22nd birthday, his parents Judy and Dennis created the Matthew Shepard Foundation as a vehicle to combat hate crimes with contributions that were flowing in from all over the world.
Late last month, the Shepards staged the Foundation’s annual fund-raising gala in Dallas, where poet Lesléa Newman, who is with us for the Master Chorale’s performances of Considering Matthew Shepard, received the organization’s Making a Difference Award. Then they carried Matt’s remains to Washington, D.C., where the ashes were interred in a crypt alongside the remains of President Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan, among other luminaries. The elaborate service, with a moving homily by Eugene Robinson, the retired Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, attracted an overflow crowd, was televised nationally, and received extensive coverage by NPR, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Before now, the Shepards were afraid that any burial spot or memorial would be defaced by vandals. But as Bishop Robinson said, “Matthew is safe now.”
While they were in Washington, the Shepards addressed officials at the US Department of Justice and contributed artifacts of Matthew’s short life to the Smithsonian Institution. Then they flew to Minneapolis and Alaska to carry on the Foundation’s work.
During all this, Judy Shepard found time to respond to some emailed questions. Here’s a lightly edited version of that virtual conversation.
NHMC: Are you surprised to find that so many people are still “considering Matthew Shepard” 20 years later?
JS: It is still surprising. Most legacy foundations last two to five years and, after that, people seem to forget about the event or person. Not Matt. His particular case was one of the first that struck a chord with the nation and even the world. Maybe it was because he looked like the boy next door. Maybe it was because nobody thought about Laramie or Wyoming prior to this event. At the time we heard a rallying cry from not only from the LGBTQ+ community, but the allied communities as well. They begged us to take the opportunity to show that we loved our son and that his sexuality was a non-issue. So we did. And here we are 20 years later.
NHMC: Matthew is most strongly identified with LGBTQ rights and the crusade against anti-gay bigotry. But you’ve said you see your mission as broader. How is it relevant to America’s current climate?
JS: The mission is broader than just the LGBTQ+ community. We try to replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance for all marginalized people. Muslims, Jews and immigrants alike are being attacked right now. Transgender women of color are being murdered at an alarming rate. Mass shootings are plaguing the country and hate is coming from the top. I fear for anyone who isn’t a straight, white, Christian man right now. We have a lot of work to do if we want to undo the damage that has been done over the past two-and-a-half years.
NHMC: So much art and literature has come out of the response to Matthew’s murder. Where does Considering Matthew Shepard fit into this? And what were you thinking and feeling when parts of it were performed at the National Cathedral?
JS: There have been so many works of art dedicated to Matt – Craig Hella Johnson’s oratorio being one of many. It’s astounding, really. To hear Matt’s words put to music gives even more depth of meaning to his life. I felt so many emotions and profound appreciation when I heard excerpts performed at the interment.
NMHC: As you know, there is an alternative narrative that challenges the conventional view of Aaron McKinney’s and Russell Henderson’s motive for killing Matthew – and thus the bedrock notion that it was an anti-gay hate crime. How do you respond to this allegation?
JS: We encounter it regularly and we still say the same thing: Matt was an imperfect person, but this was without a doubt a hate crime. The coroner even recently came forward with more evidence. There was bruising around his groin. There was not a trace of meth in his system. To have to continually defend this only makes the trauma worse. It’s victim-blaming and it’s not right. In the statements given by the perpetrators, they state that they targeted Matt because they assumed he was gay and repeated epithets in those statements. That in itself makes it a hate crime.
Performance Details - Tickets Available Here
Friday, November 16 at 8PM – South Church: 292 State St. Portsmouth, NH
Saturday, November 17 at 7:30PM - First Congregational Church: 177 N. Main St, Concord, NH
Sunday, November 18 at 4PM - Plymouth Congregational Church: 4 Post Office Square, Plymouth, NH
The New Hampshire Master Chorale, led by Dr. Dan Perkins, is a non-profit choir established in the spring of 2003. This premier chamber ensemble is dedicated to excellence in the art of choral music performance. Members of the group are trained singers, auditioned from throughout New England, who have performed as soloists and in choral ensembles throughout the world. You can get a taste of the NHMC on our SoundCloud page: soundcloud.com/nh-master-chorale or find us on Facebook and twitter: www.facebook.com/NHMasterChorale and twitter.com/nhmasterchorale.
Tickets available at nhmasterchorale.org and at the door — $30 general, $25 senior, $15 group of 10+
Free admission for undergraduates and students in grades K–12.
The New Hampshire Master Chorale also utilizes a “Pay What You Are Able” ticket policy so that anyone can attend regardless of financial ability. We welcome all donations to support this.
The New Hampshire Master Chorale is funded in part by a generous grant from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts.