The audience was silent as Judy Shepard recited the victim impact statement she read in the trial following her son’s death, 15 years ago.
“He was my son, my first-born and more — he was my friend, confidant and constant reminder of how good life can be and also how hurtful,” Shepard said.
In 1998 Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson murdered her 21-year-old son Matthew, fueled by anti-gay hatred. Matthew was kidnapped, beaten and tied to a fence near Laramie, Wyo., where he was discovered unconscious 18 hours later.
The crime struck the Shepard family and the country by surprise, inspiring a movement that continues to this day.
Shepard urged students, faculty and community members to speak out against hate Tuesday night in the Whittenberger Auditorium in the IU Memorial Union.
For 15 years Shepard has toured America and the world, telling Matthew’s story and encouraging safety and acceptance.
“Hate starts with fear and ignorance of things we don’t understand,” she said.
Hundreds of audience members filled the auditorium to maximum capacity, with dozens of students standing in the doorways. It was sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Student Support Services along with several other organizations around campus.
Director of the GLBTSSS Doug Bauder, along with junior Kaleb Crain, introduced the event.
“I’m not a professional speaker,” Shepard said. “I’m a mom with a story to tell and opinions to share.”
She said the night she got the call was something she’d never forgot.
Shepard was living in Saudi Arabia with her husband at the time, and she thought it was simply a late-night call from Matthew.
He could never work out the time difference between the countries, Judy Shepard said.
After hearing the news of the crime from the hospital, she had to wait days to travel and see her son, not knowing if he was alive or dead.
“Waiting to see Matt felt like an eternity,” Judy Shepard said.
When she saw the figure in the hospital bed, she knew it was her son underneath the bandages.
He still had the cute little bump on his left ear, but the twinkle of life wasn’t there, she said.
Matthew Shepard died on Monday, Oct. 12, after being in a coma for several days.
“All of our hopes and dreams for Matt were killed for twenty dollars,” she said. “There are days I think I cannot go on. But I know the love of my family and friends will support me, and it’s my duty to Matt to go on.”
Shepard said she struggled with the decision to publicize her son’s story, but she knew it was what Matthew would have wanted.
“We wanted Matt to be the martyr,” she said. “We knew we couldn’t hide.”
Judy Shepard said she is determined to use her grief over her son’s death to make the world a more accepting place for everyone.
She started the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an organization dedicated to replacing hate with acceptance and compassion through educational and outreach programs.
All proceeds from her speaking engagements directly benefit the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
The images of burning crosses and Matthew’s face appeared in the background as Judy Shepard’s voice spoke to the silent audience.
Her message was poignant and serious, yet she maintained a conversational tone.
“I consider myself a private, shy person,” Judy Shepard said. “I have to think that Matt is up there helping me do this.”
Shepard said she thinks society has become silent, indifferent and complacent to hate.
She encouraged students to tell their own stories in order to encourage acceptance of all individuals, regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation.
“If there isn’t a problem being discussed then there is not a solution being discussed,” Judy Shepard said. “We can profess anti-bullying policies and counseling, but if the community is not on board then it is all for nothing.”
She said with the government shutdown, the nation has lost precious time and momentum in passing legislation protecting LGBT individuals, specifically those in the workplace.
Individuals can still be fired for being gay in 35 states, she said.
She said she hopes students can be not only advocates for legislation, but also be leaders in their own communities.
“Engaging today’s generation is a challenge,” she said. “Don’t let your personal bubble prevent you from branching out.”
Judy tells her story to thousands of individuals each year, but true change can only come if students speak up.
“As much as I don’t want there to be any more Matthew Shepards, I don’t want there to be any more Aaron McKinneys and Russell Hendersons,” Judy Shepard said. “And you can change that.”