Matthew Shepard’s Mom Rallies Youth Vote

Matthew ShepardCHICAGO, ILLINIOS – Short in stature, Judy Shepard walks in and stands at the podium, only to be dwarfed by an unwieldy microphone.
“I’m not a professional speaker,” she tells her audience. They number in the hundreds, mostly teens and young adults.
She is, she tells them, “a mom with a story.” She’s a social studies teacher, a country girl from Wyoming who reluctantly became a political activist after her 21-year-old son Matthew Shepard was beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead on the prairie outside Laramie, Wyo.
Because Matthew was gay, his high-profile death eight years ago became a rallying point for proponents of tougher hate crimes legislation.
Since then, Shepard has hounded politicians, asking them to broaden hate crimes protections on the federal level and in many states that don’t have them _ including her own. She has stood side-by-side with the family of
James Byrd Jr., a black man who was dragged to his death in Jasper, Texas, the same year Matthew died.
She also has maintained a demanding speaking schedule that takes her to college campuses across the country. This fall she takes her hate crimes campaign a step further by pushing young people to vote and then pressure the officials they elect.
“What happened to the days when we questioned authority? You don’t yell. You don’t scream,” she told her audience at Chicago’s Roosevelt University. Her tone was gentle, but firm. “You should be just mad _ mad, mad, mad.”
This month, the foundation she and husband Dennis began in their son’s name started distributing lapel buttons with their son’s photo that say “Vote _ For Me.”
Disappointed with her fellow baby boomers, Shepard aims the get-out-the-vote effort at a generation of young Americans who polls show are more accepting of diversity and gay issues than their elders _ and who also showed signs of life in the 2004 election, when nearly half of all eligible young voters cast ballots.
“Matt was passionate about politics and voting, so it seemed like a natural fit,” Shepard, who is 54 and lives in Casper, Wyo., said in an interview.
It is an image of her eldest son that she’d much rather remember than the last time she saw him, barely alive in a hospital bed, his head wrapped in bandages and his face swollen and stitched. She didn’t recognize him at first and, to this day, is not sure he was aware of his family’s presence at his bedside before he died on Oct. 12, 1998.
“I do this now because I don’t want there to be another Matthew. But I also don’t want there to be another Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson,” Shepard said of the two young men who are each serving two life sentences after pleading guilty to felony murder and kidnapping to avoid the death penalty.
Shepard reminds her young audiences that many states do not have employment or housing protections for those who are gay, lesbian or transsexual. She does not, however, limit her speeches to those issues _ and includes race-related hate crimes and interviews with James Byrd’s family in a video presentation.
“This isn’t a gay thing,” Shepard often says. “This is a hate thing.”
Jack McDevitt, associate dean of Northeastern University’s College of Criminal Justice and an expert on hate crimes, calls Shepard’s work “incredibly important.”
“It doesn’t do everything we need it to do,” he says. “But research indicates that the majority of hate crimes or bias crimes are committed by young people.”
So, he says, a young person who’s been educated about hate crimes could deter other young peers from committing them.
After Shepard’s speech in Chicago, 15-year-old Danny Rohde rose from the crowd to tell Shepard about bullying he’s witnessed against a German student and others at his private city school who are perceived to be outsiders. Shepard encouraged him to get his teachers involved.
“I try to stick up for them, but it’s really hard,” Rohde said of the students who are being harassed. “It’s really disturbing.”
Outside the auditorium, several who attended said they were inspired by Shepard _ to register and vote and to stand up against discrimination and hate.
“It was phenomenal. It was interesting to see how loving a mother can be,” said Olin Eargle, a 23-year-old gay man from Chicago who works in real estate.
They are the kind of responses that keep Judy Shepard going, especially on days when she feels worn out.
She wonders why so many victims of hate crimes don’t get the attention her son did. She worries about young people who are kicked out of home because they’re gay, or for any other number of reasons.
But, she says, there is always that hope _ and the thought that Matthew would want her to fight on. “I know it’s going to change; I know the battle is won,” she said. “It’s just a matter of when.”
from The Washington Post

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