This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Americans ‘silent, indifferent, complacent,’
activist Judy Shepard tells UB audience

Rachel Wilson of Crisis Services shares material with Carol Wrazien and Shaun O’Donnell, both of Cleveland Hill High School, at the Civic Engagement and Resource Fair held in the Alumni Arena concourse before and after Judy Shepard’s Distinguished Speakers Series lecture. Photo: NANCY J. PARISI

  • Amanda Nickerson, director of UB’s Jean M. Alberti Center for the Prevention of Bullying Abuse and School Violence, talks during a special program on bullying prevention held in Baird Recital Hall before Judy Shepard’s lecture. Photo: NANCY J. PARISI

Published: November 10, 2011

Her motherly presence and gentle demeanor notwithstanding, Judy Shepard last night delivered a tough message about refuting gay stereotypes and responding to acts of hatred by “telling our stories.” The mother of Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming student who was murdered in 1998 in a brutal hate crime, asserted that “we have become ‘SIC’—silent, indifferent and complacent.”

Addressing an Alumni Arena audience as part of UB’s Distinguished Speakers Series, Shepard spoke movingly of the moment she and her husband, Dennis, then living in Saudi Arabia, received a phone call that their 21-year-old son had been savagely attacked in Laramie, Wyo., and was lying in a hospital bed in Fort Collins, Colo. They endured a 25-hour trip to reach Matthew, punctuated with several stops and layovers, unable to learn anything about his condition while traveling. All the while, Shepard could think only of the terrible image of her son “alone on the prairie and tied to a fence for 18 hours.”

When they finally did reach his bedside, Matthew was almost unrecognizable from the beating, his head “swathed in bandages and tubes running everywhere.” Still, there were signs a mother would quickly recognize, such as Matthew’s long eyelashes and his braces visible amid the tubes. “Such an act of cruelty was incomprehensible,” Shepard told a hushed audience. On Oct. 12, 1998, at 12:53 a.m., Matthew died.

In the days that followed, contributions arrived to defray medical expenses. Matthew’s family decided to turn their tragedy into positive action by encouraging diversity and understanding, and thereby preventing a similar hate crime. They established the Matthew Shepard Foundation to help carry on his legacy; Shepard and the foundation pushed for national legislation enacted in 2009 and known officially as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

“There are days when I feel I can’t go on,” said Shepard, reading from her victim impact statement at the 1999 sentencing of one of Matthew’s killers, Russell Henderson, the first to be tried in the case. “But Matthew would be disappointed in us all if we gave up.” (The second killer, Aaron McKinney, was tried and convicted later that year.)

Shepard began her talk with self-deprecating humor and amusing asides as a way for the audience to get to know her personally, and thus better understand how she has coped in the 13 years since her son’s death. A native of Wyoming, where relatively few trees exist, she discovered she had a severe plant allergy as she began to travel widely on the foundation’s behalf. A trip to Buffalo in November would be problem-free, she thought. However, several days spent in the region’s unseasonably warm weather were having their effects. “You all have way too much going on here [allergenically speaking],” she said.

In speaking of her son, Shepard maintained her composure throughout the lecture, though she said it remains difficult. “I love and miss him more than I can express. …We shared so many things: late-night talks…politics, movies and theater, good books, good food, good conversation. He was my son, my first-born and more.” He was not perfect and he made mistakes, his mother said, “but those mistakes hurt no one but himself.”

In the years since Matthew’s death, Shepard has been a zealous advocate for gay rights and the understanding of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. In 2009, she published “The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed,” the 2011 UB Reads selection. Admitting that she doesn’t know the “complete alphabet” of precise and most current references to each individual community, Shepard joked that she favors the “GLOW” description used by a gay organization in Minnesota—“gay, lesbian or whatever.”

Although she may not possess a command of all these nuances, Shepard was insistent that civil rights is the salient issue all Americans must honor in considering issues raised by gays. “Educate, educate, educate,” she said, explaining this approach “is the only way we’re going to make the gay community part of everyday life,” where, for example, a gay student association is as unexceptional in American high schools as the student council.

In 30 U.S. states, Shepard said, “one can be fired because you are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. And it’s 35 states if you consider transgender alone.” That doesn’t sound alike a country of equal opportunity, she said, adding that she’s proud of New York for enacting gay marriage legislation. She also asserted the primacy of voting and why it is the responsibility of all Americans “to be part of the system.” Furthermore, she urged members of the LGBT communities to present “a united front” in pressing for common goals.

Shepard’s talk was preceded by a presentation in Baird Hall by Amanda Nickerson, director of the Jean M. Alberti Center for the Prevention of Bullying Abuse and School Violence. Nickerson traced her research on this subject and that of the center proper.

She presented clarifying language on what constitutes bullying, why it is “a complex problem with many layers,” always involving a power imbalance and potentially devastating in its consequences. Nickerson discussed signs that may indicate a child is being bullied or may in fact be the aggressor. She then presented and discussed with the audience strategies that parents, teachers, schools administrators, students and family members might adopt to combat a persistent problem that has recently gained national attention following the death by suicide of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer of Amherst, who was gay and bullied.