Dennis and Judy Shepard would rather be boring. They’d rather not have visited the White House or Ford Theatre or crisscrossed Europe on a State Department-sponsored trip promoting tolerance and diversity. They’d rather you had never heard of their son or become spokespeople for a movement. They’d rather not be feted by politicians and celebrities for their strength and perseverance.
But nearly 15 years after the death of their son Matthew, a gay University of Wyoming student, who was tied to a fence outside of Laramie and beaten mercilessly, all these things describe the Shepards.
“We sure didn’t think we’d be doing this work 15 years later,” said Judy Shepard last week.
She was seated next to her husband at Metro Coffee, giving the umpteenth interview to the umpteenth reporter who’d come asking about their son’s murder and the work they have done in his name since.
Many people who are accustomed to the press and the public spotlight often speak in sound bites during interviews. Their eyes glaze over, as they repeat the same answers to the same questions asked countless times before.
Not the Shepards. They founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation shortly after their son’s death in 1998 and have traveled the world telling his story since. But one senses that no matter how many times they talk about it, the emotions remain raw. Dennis occasionally leans forward when he talks, eager to tackle a question and make his point. Judy delivers her answers with a practiced calm, but her voice displays, at times, an unmistakable quiver.
“We’re still kind of supporting the career he wanted for himself,” Dennis said.
And what career was that?
“To make the world a better place,” Judy said.
The PEW Research Center released a survey last week, in which 92 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adults said society has become more accepting of them in the past decade. An equal number expects the trend to continue in the next decade, the survey found.
The gay rights movement has made rapid gains in recent years. In 2011, 15 senators backed same-sex marriage. Today, 51 count themselves same-sex marriage supporters. The president announced his support for same-sex marriage during last year’s campaign. Partners of gay federal employees are now eligible to receive benefits. And in 2013 alone, Rhode Island, Delaware and Minnesota joined nine other states in making same-sex marriage legal.
The gains have come as a surprise, Judy said. She never expected progress to come so quickly. Indeed, the Shepards seem slightly awestruck not only by the movement’s success, but their own role within it.
Earlier this month, the couple made their second trip to the White House for a reception coinciding with the Ford Theatre Gala. (Their first trip was in 2009 for the signing of The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.)
“The Laramie Project,” a play about Matthew’s life and murder, will open at the Ford later this year. The theater was the site of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and the play will be shown as part of the Lincoln Legacy Project, which seeks to foster greater dialogue on issues of equality.
The symbolism of “The Laramie Project” arriving at the Ford is not lost on the Shepards. In previous years, the Lincoln Legacy Project staged performances about anti-Semitism and racism.
“It gives a new level of credibility to the play in that it’s now recognized as a civil rights issue in a place as iconic as Ford Theatre,” she said. “It was a totally different world when the play was actually written and what happened to Matt.”
Dennis leaned forward in his chair. Gay rights and equal rights are the same thing, he said. American citizens are being denied rights as basic as hospital visits, the chance to adopt or inherit their spouse’s assets.
“This is just another step up towards total equality in this country,” he said.
Dennis Shepard is a safety engineer between jobs. He worked 17 years for Saudi Aramco. During that time he lived in Saudi Arabia, returning home in 2009 following his departure from the company. Judy, Matthew and the couple’s other son, Logan, lived with him there for a time, but Judy returned in 1998 to work on the foundation after Matthew’s death. They saw each other infrequently. Dennis made two annual trips home; Judy made two annual trips to the Gulf.
“We had a dysfunctional marriage because this was more important to get out and take care of these kids and families and equalize things for everyone,” Dennis said.
The Shepards call Casper home. In the early days, after Matthew was killed and the foundation was just beginning, some of their neighbors disassociated. Others probably wished they were less vocal about their son’s case. But for the most part their friends treated them the same as they had always done, Judy said.
Attitudes in Wyoming appear to be shifting, they said. Anti-gay letters to the editor are less frequent and those that do appear are often met by a deluge of responses rebutting the earlier writers’ claims. This year, the state Legislature debated an anti-discrimination bill, a same-sex marriage bill and a domestic partnership bill. All were defeated, but the Shepards see progress nonetheless.
“People were listening,” Dennis said.
“We had fewer and fewer off the charts anti-gay folks at those hearings than the year before,” Judy said. “I think a lot of it is that it is public forum now. Years ago, you didn’t even talk about it in this kind of manner.”
The Shepards enjoy their work on behalf of the foundation. They were honored to take part in a State Department tour of Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Hungary and Germany to promote greater legal protections for LGBT individuals in 2012. They were humbled to be invited to the White House and meet President Obama in June. (Joe Biden put Logan in an affectionate head lock.) And they were excited to meet celebrities — ranging from Celtics legend Bill Russell to Eric Stonestreet of “Modern Family” — at the Ford Gala.
Is it bittersweet attending such events?
Judy took a deep breath. For a moment it looked as though she would cry.
“You do these great things, [and] then it dawns on you why you’re doing these great things and you’d rather not be doing these great things,” she said.
“We’d rather be a boring family, trying to make a living and get the kids through school and supporting them as they start their careers,” Dennis said. “It didn’t quite turn out that way.”
He leaned forward again. That’s the same thing gay families want: the right to raise kids, send them off to school and watch them build their own careers and families. Boring, just like everyone else. The Shepards plan to keep fighting toward that end, he said.
They’ll fight as long as they are able or until foundations like their own are no longer necessary, whichever comes first.