Matthew Shepard’s Parents on Grief, His National Cathedral Plaque, LGBTQ Rights—and Their ‘Disgust’ With Trump
In an exclusive interview, Judy and Dennis Shepard talk grief, LGBTQ rights, what Matt’s National Cathedral plaque means, and Trump’s “horrifying” policies.
On Monday, his parents Judy and Dennis will help unveil the Matthew Shepard Memorial Plaque at a special ceremony in his honor at Washington, D.C.’s National Cathedral. It is inscribed, in English and Braille, with his birth and death dates, and a quote from the Right Rev. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay man elected a bishop in the Episcopal Church.
The plaque is situated in the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea near Shepard’s ashes, which were interred in the cathedral’s crypt in October 2018. The inscription on the plaque is adapted from Robinson’s moving and stirring sermon that day: “Matt, rest gently in this place. You are home safe now. Peace be with you and all who visit here.” (You can watch the ceremony, live, here on Monday, from 7 p.m. ET.)
“I think for both of us it’s quite remarkable really, it’s an honor Matt is there,” Judy told The Daily Beast ahead of Monday’s plaque unveiling. “If you knew Matt you would understand how perfect it is because he was so into pomp, circumstance, and revelry. All the things that will take place in the church he will be part of, and he will be safe. Safe forever.”
Shepard’s 1998 death, at the age of 21, spawned international outrage and a national debate about the prevalence of anti-LGBTQ violence and hate.
It also led Judy and Dennis into the world of activism, a field they never expected to enter, especially “the very introverted” Judy. But their son’s murder, and their desire to do something active in his memory and help others, led them in 1998 to form the LGBTQ advocacy organization, the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
Both Judy and Dennis are plain-speakers, clear and engaging in all they say. Their campaigning is squarely sourced in the love they have for their much-missed son, and their determination to forge something positive from his horrific death.
Their campaigning helped shape the 2009 implementation of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, expanding U.S. federal hate crime laws to include those targeted because of their sexual orientation, actual or perceived gender, gender identity, and disability.
Judy and Dennis did not attend a Justice Department event last month marking the 10th anniversary of the act becoming law, because of their disgust at the Trump administration’s attacks on LGBTQ rights. Instead, they sent a letter to be read aloud, laying out in the strongest possible terms what they feel about the current administration’s homophobic and transphobic policies.
They wanted no part of what they saw as a PR stunt, intended to conceal what they see as the deliberate damage Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and their colleagues are doing to LGBTQ people and LGBTQ rights.
Dennis told The Daily Beast: “It’s so hypocritical. That’s why we had to write what we did. For them to come in for basically a photo op and talk about how great the Shepard-Byrd Act was while taking rights away from not just LGBTQ people but all marginalized communities, including women, was just disgusting.”
“Everything is horrifying, frightening, maddening, and frustrating—all those things,” said Judy. “We felt so much hope, before 2016, that finally positive solutions were near. Now it’s all been yanked away. It’s heartbreaking to see the fear and trepidation so many people feel in their everyday lives. If we have another four years of Trump I’m not sure how long it will take to recover, or even if we can recover.
“We definitely see the dark forces of racism, homophobia, and transphobia feeling emboldened by this current administration. Around the world we see a backlash against progress, and Trump is definitely setting that image for the rest of the world. The world used to look to us for how to behave. They’re not doing that now. We’re a joke.”
“And we are considered the leading exporters of white supremacy,” said Dennis.
Asked if she felt close to Matt at the cathedral, Judy told The Daily Beast, “For me that’s hard to describe. I've never felt like I’m without him.”
For Dennis, “it’s not so much he's there; just that when you walk into the Cathedral you remember he was an acolyte at the Episcopal Church where we live (in Wyoming), so when you walk in Matt is right there, throughout the entire facility. You just know that he’s there, looking down on you, and laughing that you’re there.”
Judy added quietly: “I never really felt like we are without him ever. Maybe part of that is because we talk about him all the time. The house we live in now, he never lived in. It’s not like he’s around every corner, but everything we do is about him, what he stood for, and what he wanted to do with his life. So I never feel like he’s not been here.”
“With the passing of years, for those who have undergone loss, there is a fading of memories,” said Dennis. “But because everything we do is because of Matt and the things he believed in and his belief in his fellow mankind, it keeps him fresh. It’s like he just stepped outside.”
“Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like,” Judy said quietly.
Judy and Dennis meet so many LGBTQ people in their early 20s, Matt’s age when he died, that it is hard for them not to think of the person he would have become, “other than how old does that make us,” Judy said, laughing softly. “He will always be that 21-year-old smiling face. To understand now that we’ve been without him as long as we had him is… ” Her voice tailed off.
“Difficult,” Dennis added starkly.
“It’s monumental,” said Judy. “It’s hard.”
“My grief is not grief,” said Dennis, his tone hardening. “Mine, when we first lost Matt, was anger and I still have that anger. That someone decided to be judge, jury, and executioner because Matt was considered different. Although look at those two [Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the men convicted of his murder and both serving life sentences for their crimes]. They were different also. The blessing of this world is that we are all different. The grief I have is that he didn’t get to fulfill his destiny and change the world himself, instead of having us do it for him.”
Judy said her experience of grief had been “understanding the loss is always going to be there. It changes. It never goes away, but it’s different over time. Even after 20 years, all of a sudden, something will happen that breaks your heart all over again. So that’s how it works.”
Judy began weeping.
“It shows how much we still miss him,” Dennis said of his wife’s tears, his own voice cracking.
“Whether Matt were here or not, he would be proud we are in this fight,” said Judy. “We have a long way to go yet. As Dennis frequently says, ‘When our generation has gone it will be so much better.’”
She and Dennis both laughed, then Dennis added, sharply: “Except that young people will have to fight to take the anti-LGBTQ laws off the books that these old white geezers are now putting on the books, which is such a waste of time. As a father, I’m disgusted, embarrassed, and angry that these men are doing this.”
Until last October, Judy said, the family had held onto Matt’s ashes, “all that time worried about where we could put them so they could be safe, and he could be safe. And then this opportunity came up quite unexpectedly and everything fell in to place.”
“The National Cathedral represents the entire country,” said Dennis. “Matt being there gives notice to all those young people, who have been denigrated, kicked out of their homes, and discriminated against, that there is one place they can go to to be safe, welcomed, and accepted. That’s so important these days with everything that is happening—not just to LGBTQ people, but all marginalized people, whether it’s race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity. They are welcome to come to the cathedral pray in the fashion want to, or sit there and meditate, or do what they want to to do.”
Judy said there had been “many conversations" about where people could go “to visit Matt. The site in Laramie where he was attacked is now private property, and you can’t get to it. The new owner extended his property fence out and hung ‘Private Property’ signs up, and dismantled the fence. And it’s like Matt's not there any way, for me anyway. To be honest, I don’t really understand that part of it. I get that place speaks to a lot of people. Not to me.”
Judy never visited the site; Dennis did.
There is a memorial bench on the University of Wyoming’s Laramie campus, but Judy was concerned anything else could be vandalized. Matt’s ashes and the plaque both being housed at the National Cathedral means anyone can visit him “someplace warm and welcoming, and non-judgmental.”
In the cathedral, Matt’s ashes and plaque are alongside those of the deaf-blind author and activist Helen Keller. Since his ashes were interred there, people have left messages, teddy bears, flowers, and other gifts.
When they set up the foundation, Judy and Dennis imagined it as a finite project, closing its doors when it was not needed any more, and as people “moved on from one tragedy to the next.” But as anti-LGBTQ hatred and discrimination persist, so does the Shepards’ work.
“I don’t think he would have thought I would have been doing it,” Judy said, when asked what Matt would have made of his parents’ campaigning.
“She’s a real introvert,” said Dennis.
“Being a public speaker was nothing that I aspired to,” said Judy. “What I would have been, had this not happened, is a PFLAG mom making cookies at the meetings. Not at the podium.”
“We wouldn’t have been the face of the struggle for equality,” said Dennis.
Of their feelings about President Trump, and his administration’s record on attacking LGBTQ rights and equality, Judy said dryly, “How much time do you have? It’s really terrible. He kept saying he’d be the LGBTQ community’s best friend. Anyone who believed that…”
Dennis interjected. “He lied to a lot of people about a lot of things, and that was one of the big ones.”
Judy said Trump had surrounded himself with a cadre of anti-LGBTQ officials, most notably Pence. William Barr, the attorney general, “is really just Trump’s attorney. It’s a farce.”
Judy noted that the Department of Justice was backing the Trump administration against equality and equal treatment in the cases of LGBTQ discrimination currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. How, she wondered, must LGBTQ employees at the DoJ and other government agencies feel?
What would Judy and Dennis say to Trump and lawmakers directly if they could?
“Resign,” Judy said sharply.
“I would say,” said Dennis, “explain to me as a father, why I have two sons, one straight and one gay, and they don’t have equal rights. They were both born in the middle of Wyoming, and one has more rights and privileges than the other, and they’re both tax-paying citizens.”
Judy said quietly of Trump: “I don’t think he has the capability of understanding anything that doesn’t affect him.”
Dennis: “He doesn’t have the intellect. If you can’t make a buck off it, he’s not interested.”
Judy: “If we were ever invited to speak with him we would not do it.”
Dennis: “It would be a photo op for him, not the benefit of America.”
Judy and Dennis are incredulous that the Supreme Court should be presiding over whether it should be legal and acceptable to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
“They’re passing judgment on fellow human beings,” Judy said angrily.
“On American citizens who deserve equality and equal rights,” said Dennis. “This is not a theocracy, but they’re trying to use the Bible. This is a democracy, and people should have equality. They shouldn’t be ruling or voting on this. It should be a given. This should never have gone to the Supreme Court.”
In the LGBTQ sphere, the work around combating anti-transgender violence and discrimination takes even more vital work and advocacy, Judy said. “None of this will ever be a non-issue unfortunately. But we have to get people talking.”
“Cisgender people don’t understand that sense of being born in the wrong body so it’s an education,” said Dennis. “It’s going to be difficult, but we all have to support trans people.”
“People talking about ‘understanding’ it,” said Judy, sighing. “Can’t we just accept trans people as what they are—people. Treat them with the same respect and understanding as we would any other fellow human being.”
Judy said that she and Dennis met many young people in the work they do and are encouraged by their commitment to social justice and equality, despite a GLAAD survey in June showing a decline in LGBTQ acceptance among young people, “because they’re taking cues from our leadership and our leadership is terrible in that regard,” said Judy.
But more famous people are out, she said. There is more discussion around LGBTQ issues and more support than there was 20 years ago.
Judy and Dennis say they will continue with the advocacy for as long as they are effective, and physically able to do so.
Matt’s brother Logan worked for the foundation until last year, and was now “out living his own life.”
Judy said Logan was an introvert like her, and never wanted to be a public face. “He did struggle with the high-profile for a while. It freaked him out a bit. Then a friend of his, who happened to be gay, said to him, ‘You have to pay attention to what your folks are doing. They’re trying to help us.’ So he joined the foundation with no pressure from us. He enjoyed the work. His fiancée—they’re doing great—is definitely a supporter and she is more vocal than Logan. We watch, because we never know when something might pop up in a negative way, but so far he’s doing great.”
It is emotionally hard, said Judy, to reacquaint people, 20-plus years on, with the brutal details of what happened to their son (some of those details were questioned by Stephen Jimenez in his 2013 book, The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths about the Murder of Matthew Shepard). Judy and Dennis hope Matt’s death becomes less about the event itself and more about “how we change the world for the better,” as Judy put it, and maintain the progress in LGBTQ equality achieved so far against the many attempts to undermine it.
As for the hate groups, like the Westboro Baptist Church, who protested Matt’s funeral 21 years ago, Judy said that the WBC’s former leader, the now-dead Fred Phelps “did a lot of things to raise awareness for us. People paid more attention to us because of him.”
“And issues around violence and discrimination against the LGBTQ community that people were not aware of at the time,” said Dennis. The young activists the Shepards meet now were inspired and energized by fighting for equality in Matthew’s name, and protesting the likes of Phelps.
“Those fringe people are idiots, ridiculous people,” said Judy. “And I don’t want to give them any power by acknowledging they are out there. They’re just noise.”
Matt’s death spawned a more positive proliferation of cultural artifacts than the banners of the WBC, most famously Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project’s The Laramie Project, a 2000 theater work now produced all over the world (and its 2009 companion piece, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later); as well as Judy’s own 2009 book, The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed, Michele Josue’s 2013 documentary Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, Conspirare and Craig Hella Johnson’s 2016 multimedia musical piece Considering Matthew Shepard, and Lesléa Newman’s 2012 book, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard.
Parents approach Judy and Dennis a lot. Judy said that she and Dennis do not tend to give advice to others, “because everything is so individual. You just need to know your kids, and love your kids and listen to them.”
Dennis said quietly: “Just support your kids and believe in them, and do everything you can to give them the family support they need before they go out into the world.”
This reporter asked, if Judy and Dennis could say anything to Matt, what would it be.
Dennis growled, “Get off you butt, and get down here and do this work so I don’t have to.”
He quietly chuckled and sighed, and so did Judy. “Yes, I’ll go with that,” she said once, then repeated it softly once more.