IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Waiting for dead son to become irrelevant...

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 17, 2013

Dennis Shepard looks like the strong silent type, with his closely cropped salt and pepper hair, weather-beaten features and sad eyes.

But what he wants to tell parents is something you do not expect from a tough guy: "Always tell your children 'I love you'. And if you have a chance, give them a hug every day because you never know, you may never have that opportunity again."

The 65-year-old former safety engineer speaks from experience. He and his wife Judy, 61, lost Matthew, the elder of their two sons, to a hate crime 15 years ago.

Their son was a 21-year-old political science student at the University of Wyoming in the US, when he was reportedly targeted for being gay and beaten to a pulp by two men he met in a campus bar.

Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson led Matthew to a prairie outside town, robbed him and repeatedly struck him with a pistol, almost crushing his skull. They then trussed the diminutive young man - Matthew was all of 1.57m and weighed under 49 kg - to a fence and left him to die in the bitter cold.

He was still alive when a cyclist chanced upon him 18 hours later, but Matthew never woke up from a coma and died five days later on Oct 12, 1998 in a Colorado hospital.

His death and the subsequent trial - McKinney and Henderson were sentenced to two consecutive life terms - hogged international headlines, and turned Matthew into a public symbol for violence and discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBT). He also became a rallying cry for hate crime legislation.

His death changed his parents' lives forever, as they became leading figures in this fight. They set up the Matthew Shepard Foundation to champion tolerance and diversity on what would have been their dead son's 22nd birthday in December 1998. Their younger son, Logan, 31, works for the foundation too.

In the beginning, the Shepards thought the foundation would last at most five years. But 15 years on, husband and wife still feel the need to spread the message of acceptance.

While they have seen many strides made in the fight for tolerance and equality - gays now openly serve in the US military and the country's hate crime laws now apply to offences motivated by a victim's gender and sexual orientation - they feel they still have a long way to go.

"Just look at the issue of bullying, especially on social media, which is so prominent now. To target someone because of the way he or she looks, acts, talks or dresses is just wrong. We try to make people understand that any act of violence against anyone for what they perceive to be different is just wrong," says Dennis.

"Before bullying became a buzz word, Judy was already talking about it. Now it has become a real physical and emotional issue. We just hope people can accept each other's uniqueness because it is what makes the world fun."

The couple tell their story in schools, corporations and conferences not just in the United States but also abroad. "We don't go where we are not invited," Judy says.

They were in Singapore earlier this month to attend a candlelight vigil to celebrate the United Nations International Day of Tolerance. Organised by and held at the US Embassy, it was attended by 50 guests including council members of the Inter-Religious Organisation, diplomats and representatives from social groups.

There were no speeches. Instead, those at the vigil lit candles, floating them in the embassy's reflecting pool in memory of Matthew.

Judy says: "Our message is the same everywhere we go. Acceptance. We run into the same kinds of people with the same questions and the same issues. How can I help my parents and my friends understand who I am? What can I do to change society?"

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Her advice is simple.

"Tell your stories. The moment we humanise the stories, the less different it becomes. If you put a human face to a problem, it changes people's perspective of what that problem is."

The homemaker says she suspected her elder son was gay when he was young and it worried her a little.

"You worry about your children, no matter what. In those days, the gay community faced a lot of ignorance, hatred, violence and discrimination. Then there was Aids. So yes, I was worried about his safety, and I was worried he wouldn't be happy," she says.

When he was 18, Matthew, who had already left home to go to college, told her on the phone that he was gay. He said he would tell his father face-to-face, but Judy primed her husband.

"I knew he wouldn't reject Matt but I didn't want him to say something out of ignorance that would hurt Matt," she says.

Dennis confesses he was disappointed at first. "I wanted grandkids. My father had taught the boys how to fish and hunt, ride horses and do things like that and I wanted to do the same for my grandkids," he says.

"Then I thought to myself: how selfish. Look at all the families that had lost a child to a disease, a war or an accident. I still have my son to make memories with."

The couple were in Saudi Arabia where Dennis was working as an oil rig inspector when Matthew was attacked.

"It was 5 in the morning. I thought it was Matt; he was never great with time zones," recalls Judy. Instead, it was a hospital in Wyoming, saying Matthew had to be moved to Colorado because of his serious head injuries.

They were not told how he had been injured, and assumed he was in a car crash.

It was almost two days before they finally reached the US, where they were shocked to find Matthew's story on the front page of almost every newspaper.

There was a lot of grief, says Dennis, and confusion.

"Why would anybody think it was okay to do that to another human being? What on earth transpired that they would want to do something like that to Matt?," he says.

Judy says: "But we absolutely refused to go down the road of hate because that would make us victims too. We just wanted to be there for Matt and Logan."

The lobby of the hospital overflowed with flowers and teddy bears, and more than 100,000 Americans e-mailed their sympathies, crashing the hospital's servers. The Shepard family also received more than 10,000 cards, many containing money besides sympathetic messages.

Matthew's memorial and funeral service were held at a church in Casper, Wyoming.

"It was snowing like the dickens that day. The roads were closed and people lined their streets, holding their umbrellas," says Judy.

A few weeks later, the couple set up the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

"We had a lot of mail, many with money in it; they wanted to help us pay medical bills but we decided Matt's medical bills were our responsibility," says Dennis.

Judy adds: "A lot of people, in their cards and letters, encouraged us to take the opportunity to speak out. We decided the best way was to do something positive from something so negative."

While Dennis went back to Saudi Arabia to work until 2009, Judy stayed on in the US to work on the foundation.

She was invited to give her first speech at a high school in 2000, and she has not stopped since.

Dennis says: "I financed everything that she did for the first three years. It wiped us out because there were so many bills to pay."

He himself started speaking when he returned from Saudi Arabia. "A lot of people came up to me and said, 'We really need to hear you speak because we seldom hear a father speak. So now I get out and yell at the fathers for not loving their kids, giving them a hug, helping and supporting them to build their own self-respect and esteem."

Matthew's death inspired many songs, and led to movies and plays. Singer Melissa Etheridge wrote a haunting tribute called Scarecrow in 1999, and Elton John wrote and recorded American Triangle in 2001.

Then there was the telemovie The Matthew Shepard Story (2002), which won Stockard Channing two awards for her role as Judy, and Anatomy Of A Hate Crime (2001). The most famous is The Laramie Project, a play by Moses Kaufman, chronicling reactions to Matthew's murder.

Adapted for an HBO telemovie starring Christina Ricci and Laura Linney in 2001, the play is still regularly staged by theatre companies all over the world.

In 2009, Judy came out with a book, The Meaning Of Matthew, which made it to the New York Times' bestsellers' list. It is now required reading for freshmen in several American universities.

"We were beginning to be freaked out by the idea that Matt was being put on a pedestal, and made out to be a saint, someone we didn't recognise any more," she says.

The real Matthew, she says, was a 21-year-old college student who drank too much, smoked too much and did not go to enough classes.

"I made it clear that he was a human being who just happened to be gay, he was a human being with flaws, he had some tragedies," she says.

A few months ago, The Book Of Matt, another book on Matthew Shepard, was released, this time by author Stephen Jimenez, who believes that the murder was not an anti-gay crime but the result of a botched drug deal.

The couple dismiss it. Judy says: "His claims are not new, they have been disproved so many times by the sheriff's department and the police investigating it. There is a character in the book who says he's wearing Matt's ashes. We don't even know who he is."

Meanwhile, the couple intend to keep doing what they do because the story of Matthew Shepard is still relevant.

Judy says: "We'd be very happy if and when he becomes irrelevant because that means there is no need to talk about it any more.

"That's what we want."

kimhoh@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 17, 2013

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