Friday, May 22, 2009

Judy Shepard: The Meaning of Matthew

EK from purified thinking water recently gave me a copy of "The Meaning of Matthew," an advance book she is reviewing for Library Journal. (I have fancy friends, right?) In case you have forgotten, which I kind of understand, since 1998 was now 11 years ago, Matthew Shepard was the young man who was killed in a horrific hate crime in Wyoming- two men beat him to death because he was gay. Judy Shepard is his mother, and the book is her memoir. The book is not out yet, as a fancy pants reviewer, EK gets to do things like read books ahead of time, but it will be soon, and it's worth reading.

Judy Shepard is an honest woman. She loved her son more than anything else (loves her son) and lost him to some unthinking, hateful men. This was her personal tragedy that became a national and even international tragedy, and Shepard traces both her struggle coping with personal loss and her struggle with coming to terms with Matthew's death as a loss to an entire world. The book follows Matthew's whole life, and the ten years since his life ended into Judy's birth as an activist. She examines her initial reluctance to deal with the press and politicians and even movement leaders- Matthew was hers, what do they care? While Matthew is in the hospital, she attends a vigil for him, and feels "like the vigil was more for [the attendees] than it was for Matt." She resents having to hand out tickets to his funeral due to the thousands of people who show up. At first, when she appears in the press, she appears as the "sobbing mother" and she strives to alter her message into one she is comfortable with.

In a groundbreaking moment at the trial, and perhaps as a turning point for Judy, the judge does not allow one of the killers to use a "gay panic" defense. Basically, he can't say "dude was gay and came on to me so I had to kill him." Although this wasn't on the books as a law in Wyoming at the time, the judge called bullshit, and set precedent- "There is no proffered evidence of a homosexual-rage syndrome that would make the evidence relevant." Some of the most amazingly heartbreaking parts of the book are her and her husband's testimonies at the trials of the men who beat Matthew. Denis Shepard thanked Wyoming for showing that hate crimes will not be tolerated:
My son Matthew paid a terrible price to open the eyes of all of us who live in Wyoming, the United States and the world to the unjust and unnecessary fears, discrimination, and intolerance that members of the gay community face every day. Yesterday's decision by you showed true courage and made a statement. That statement is that Wyoming is the Equality State; that Wyoming will not tolerate discrimination based on sexual orientation; that violence is not the solution

The Shepards will probably never come to terms with Matthew's death- I would never presume to know their emotions- but by this point, they had come to terms with Matthew's spot as a public figure, and began to figure out their roles in making change. Judy Shepard now works closely with HRC and the Matthew Shepard Foundation and groups that work for hate crime legislation and helping families accept their queer kids.

Judy Shepard is a force. I am going to say something trite, and probably awful. But good has come from Matthew's death. He should not have died, no one should die like this. No one's family should suffer like this. But this is a woman who has created a foundation with a mission. She writes, "it wouldn't be about tolerance, since you tolerate bad hair days, not people." Instead, the Foundation is about "Erasing Hate, LGBT Equality, and Putting Children First." Not bad, for a "crying mother." Judy Shepard is an inspiration- how to harness tragedy into a powerful force for change. You'll cry when you read this book, but hopefully you'll also move forward, with the Shepard family.