Philadelphia is honoring LGBT advocate Judy Shepard during the 50th-anniversary celebration of the Annual Reminder Day marches.
Shepard has been a tireless advocate for LGBT rights and antidiscrimination laws after her son, Matthew, was murdered in 1998 in an antigay hate crime that thrust the issue into a national spotlight. In an effort to prevent the kind of violence and discrimination that cost their son his life, Judy and her husband, Dennis, established the Matthew Shepard Foundation to advocate for social justice, diversity awareness and equality for LGBT people.
A lot has changed in the social landscape since the foundation’s inception, including the 2009 adoption of the Matthew Shepard Act, a law that expanded federal hate-crimes legislation to include LGBT people. That same year, Shepard wrote “The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie and a World Transformed,” a book about her son’s murder and its international repercussions.
Shepard talked to PGN about how the laws and attitudes about LGBT rights have changed in the last few years, and what she and the Matthew Shepard Foundation see as the next challenges facing LGBT individuals in these shifting times.
PGN: In your opinion, has significant-enough progress been made with it comes to LGBT equality and civil rights since the Matthew Shepard Foundation started?
JS: Significant progress? Yes. Enough? Of course not. There’s so much more to be done. And now we have the momentum to move on to the remaining challenges. Since Matt’s death, the way we talk about the LGBT community and hate crimes in this country has changed radically. The community is represented in government, entertainment and media, business leadership. Military service, spousal immigration, hospital visits — these challenges are mostly, if not entirely, resolved. But “equality” is more than marriage equality. Your same-sex wedding photo on your desk at work can still get you fired fresh off your honeymoon. Bullying is an epidemic and youth are still harming themselves at an alarming rate. We’ve only just begun to even talk thoughtfully and constructively as a society about the advances the trans community still needs to make. We have so much more to do.
PGN: Do you think LGBT activists give and get enough support from other minority groups?
JS: I can’t speak for every LGBT organization from local to national levels, much less the rank and file of activists, but there are crucial partnerships between our movement and the huge array of social-justice organizations and leaders that are out there doing great work. Some of the great leaders of the civil-rights movement, like John Lewis, were crucial in rallying support for the federal hate-crimes law. And the foundation, along with [Human Rights Campaign] and many others, participate actively in 200-group-plus coalition work at the national level, touching not only on racial justice but also workers’ rights, women’s wage equality and immigration reform. LGBT people face these challenges every bit as much as non-LGBT people, and our movement includes every race, social class, religion and gender. I think this kind of coalition will only grow as all of us focus on remaining goals. And it certainly should continue growing at the activist level as well.
PGN: What course of action or resources can you recommend for LGBT individuals who do not have the support of their families or communities when it comes to defending their rights?
JS: Having parents, siblings and other loved ones turn their backs over someone coming out is one of the saddest kinds of stories I hear in my travels. Dennis and I thought it was a no-brainer that parents should stand by their kids unconditionally and, as we got into this work, we were truly shocked by the number of people — not even just youth — who’ve lost those relationships because they were authentic about who they are. Before those doors get slammed forever, there’s always PFLAG, counseling, intervention, a lot of strategies and sometimes they do work. But sometimes, they just don’t. This is where the concept of “pride” comes to make a real difference for people. We may face rejection in our lives for so many reasons, but pride, and dignity, they have to come from within and they are powerful tools for moving forward after a loss.
PGN: When the Matthew Shepard Act was being decided upon in Congress, what was it like for you to go from a president and administration [George W. Bush] who were going to shut down the bill no matter what Congress decided, to just a few years later having the ear and the attention of the next president [Barack Obama], who promised you he would do whatever he could to get the bill passed?
JS: “Whiplash” is probably a little too strong of a word for it, but it was kind of like somebody turning on the lights in a really dark room. All of a sudden, we could see that the opponents were weak and losing steam and the number of Americans demanding this change was so much greater than any of us realized. A president’s ear is a powerful thing to have, but this president gave from his heart, too, and so did the Congressional leaders who had done a decade of groundwork to set up that moment.
PGN: Do you think that having the support of the president has made a difference in other politicians’ and organizations’ willingness to endorse laws and initiatives that support LGBT equality?
JS: It’s just one more piece of the puzzle coming together — a big, central piece. With the White House on board, there is certainly cover for lower-level politicians. The voters pick up on it too and start to expect the new tone from all their leaders. And the policy steps matter. Hospitals stop turning away spouses. Gay and lesbian soldiers return from war and set a high bar for how the community is viewed. Federal workforce protections influence the private sector. It becomes viral.
PGN: Why do you think that some politicians are resistant to take hate crimes and discrimination against LGBT individuals and others seriously, even when there is overwhelming evidence that they are a frequent and serious issue?
JS: Honestly, for a long time I thought most of the opposing politicians knew they were on the wrong side of the hate-crimes debate and they were just afraid the far right would come after them and endanger their career. Dennis and I sat with Dennis Hastert when he was Speaker [of the House] and he shed an actual tear to hear our story, but never took one step to push the bill or even just get out of its way. It’s purely the anti-LGBT passions of a small minority that locked this issue up for so long. Now that we have the law, it’s being implemented in a smart way by the Justice Department and stands to protect an untold number of people in the future. We’ve seen it move from being a culture-war issue to being a public-safety and law-enforcement issue, which is really what it ought to be.
PGN: How is the Matthew Shepard Foundation addressing the issue of the recent spike in transgender teen suicides?
JS: We’re doing everything we can just to keep a conversation going nationally about acceptance and understanding and of celebration of diversity. These suicides simply break our hearts, as they should for anyone. Suicide is a very complex issue and we don’t profess to have the expertise to counsel or prevent or respond to it. Experts have set guidelines for how to talk about it without promoting “contagion” and without making it look to vulnerable youth like there is a straight line that runs from bullying to rejection to self-harm. And we pay close attention to that advice. Where our expertise lies is just continuing to speak to parents about accepting their kids and supporting them for who they are. It’s a message that needs constant reinforcement if it has any hope of taking hold, and since we started this work, a whole new generation of parents have started families. It’s a fresh and needed message every day and we could use a lot more messengers.
PGN: Do you think the LGBT community has been too focused on marriage equality and not enough on other issues affecting the community?
JS: I think there’s a perception that the movement was entirely focused on marriage because marriage was what was getting headlines and really catching the mainstream public’s attention. All the other work has been going on throughout, and making progress too, just not as prominently. We’ve stayed largely focused on hate crime, youth resources, public awareness and conversations, and marriage has been helpful in getting people to ask what’s left to be done still. We are especially eager to see the Employment Nondiscrimination Act revived and passed as soon as possible — many people will be coming out at work now that marriage has happened, and a huge number of them don’t have state or local employment protection from being fired. The marriage issue certainly deserved high-level focus, though, and a lot of savvy people stepped forward to seize the opportunity to get it done. Those bundle of rights that come with marriage actually cover a lot of separate injustices and inequalities, such as immigration for bi-national couples or adoption, just for a few examples. We’ve been connecting with community leaders who have been working on all the issues for years and years and my sense is the marriage victory is giving everyone a lot of strength to continue the unfinished work.
PGN: As the laws to protect the rights of LGBT individuals change and evolve, does that have any impact on the foundation’s goals and purpose?
JS: I feel like our goals haven’t changed all that much because changing hearts and minds is a lifetime commitment at this point. So many aspects of true equality for all Americans — not just LGBT Americans — are a slow process. We have the hate-crimes law now but it will require a huge number of police and prosecutors and victims and offenders to change the way they think and act in order for it to fulfill its potential to truly prevent bias crimes and protect communities. And that’s just one of the many issues. We’ve always said we’re working for the day when we can honestly say the foundation isn’t needed anymore. It’s not here yet, but we’re closer than we’ve ever been.
Judy Shepard and Edie Windsor will be the guests of honor at the 50th Anniversary VIP Lunch, hosted by Equality Forum at 11:30 a.m. July 4 at Independence Visitor Center; www.lgbt50.org.