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Judy Shepard speaks out about allyship and the political/cultural climate

Queer & There

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The Shepards lend their support to many organizations. - COURTESY MATTHEW SHEPARD FOUNDATION
  • Courtesy Matthew Shepard Foundation
  • The Shepards lend their support to many organizations.
My family has supported my identity since I came out to them at the age of 16, but my mother once confessed that she just wanted me to have an easy life. A happy life. Her genuine worry stuck with me as a young queer person, and, if I’m being honest, it concerned me, though I know it came from a place of absolute love.

Many straight parents worry that being gay and living a happy life are mutually exclusive states of being. They worry their children may turn out gay or gender non-conforming — not because they hate LGBTQ people, but because they know there’s a danger associated with living an open life if you don’t conform to society’s standards of propriety.

Judy and Dennis Shepard, like any parents, like my parents, wanted a good life for their child. Judy has revealed in interviews over the past two decades that a part of her knew Matthew was gay long before he came out. She loved and accepted him for it, and would have his whole life. But 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered in Wyoming in 1998, and Judy and Dennis have had to live through the singular kind of hell that straight parents of queer children fear.

Matthew Shepard’s death — the brutality of his attackers, the lost potential of his life and the publicity circus that surrounded it all — was a wake-up call for a lot of people in this country. Allies (or potential allies) realized that the casual homophobia they heard, witnessed or even participated in, was part of a larger culture of hatred, which bred violent acts like the one that had snuffed out this young man’s life. For one of the first times in our nation’s history, these people were galvanized to act.

Thanks in part to Judy Shepard’s tireless work and the work of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed in 2009, increasing resources to investigate and prosecute hate crimes. But many individual states don’t prioritize such legislation. In Colorado, our hate crime law was extended earlier this year to protect LGBTQ people and people with disabilities, but many other parts of the country have a long way to go. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 15 states with hate crime laws do not include LGBTQ people as a protected group, and five states don’t have hate crime laws at all.


What’s more, we’re living in a scary time. The violence against LGBTQ people hasn’t ended, and trans women of color in particular are still being murdered at an alarming rate. And with the permission our administration grants to the “alt-right” (see: white supremacists and actual, literal Nazis) to share their vitriolic views, and with the regressive decisions made by the White House (rolling back Obama-era guidelines that protect transgender students and military members, for instance), we in the LGBTQ community are more aware than ever that our rights are potentially ephemeral, and our very identities have been politicized. Considering nothing gets anyone angrier than politics, you can understand how this might be a frightening time to be queer.

Judy Shepard has a unique perspective on our current culture, as she has been actively involved in politics and the LGBTQ community since her son’s death. She witnessed the way it rallied the country around LGBTQ causes, and witnessed ensuing cultural shifts that have been, at alternating times, affirming and horrifying.

“I’m scared,” she admits, “for everyone who is being marginalized by our leadership. People of color, the LGBTQ community — the DACA gauntlet being thrown down ... All our civil rights issues that [made] such progress under President Obama now being turned away, erased basically. It’s very frightening.”

Since Matthew’s death, Judy Shepard has committed herself to telling  Matthew’s story, though each time it opens the wound anew. “When Matt died,” she says, her voice breaking on his name, “we got a lot of calls and letters from people asking us — begging us, really — to not let this opportunity go by when we have a voice. Because the gay community and allies were muted.”
So she and her husband used the platform at their disposal and fought. They created the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which works to share stories and empower individuals through local and national outreach. Through that, Matthew’s Place came about, an online resource center for LGBTQ youth facing discrimination and bullying.

On Oct. 3, she will speak at Inside/Out Youth Services’ Ally Up breakfast, lending the event a powerful voice on the subject of what it means to be an ally, from the perspective of someone who knows.

Each of us, no matter our sexuality, gender identity, religion or the color of our skin, should consider that question. Is it enough to simply accept the marginalized people in our lives? To silently support them?

“You can accept and love members of the community,” Shepard says, “but you’re their friend; you’re not an ally to the community. To be an ally requires some work.”

Remaining silent when it comes to LGBTQ issues can cause more damage than many allies realize. While the assurance that our friends love us and agree with our cause is appreciated, unless those friends call out other straight people for making homophobic/transphobic remarks, or actively and publicly voice their support for LGBTQ causes, we won’t get anywhere.

“It’s been my opinion,” Shepard says, “that the naysayers, the ones who don’t want civil rights to advance ... They’re the loudest. They make the most noise. They attract the most attention. And those of us who are moving forward, we’re moving forward, but we aren’t telling our stories, and I think that that has to change.”

Even and especially, she says, our stories of success. She insists that we should be loud in our celebration of same-sex marriage, of the success of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, or the thriving LGBTQ communities in unexpected places, like the South. “That’s the kind of news that needs to be told,” she says. “I think we could go forward even faster.”

Even so, Shepard acknowledges that not everyone knows how to be an ally. As queer people, we are often hesitant to approach straight/cisgender people with our needs — afraid of rejection. But this puts us in a “catch 22” as Shepard calls it, since straight people may be afraid to ask their LGBTQ friends how to get involved at the risk of sounding ignorant. “We both have to get over that,” Shepard says.

Over the years, Shepard has discovered that her role as an ally — the place in which she has found herself to be the most useful — is in “firing everybody else up.”

“I’m not really much help one-on-one,” she says, “because I just cry. I cry right along with them ... It’s just my personality.” So she has found other ways to put in the work, to support the LGBTQ community, and to honor her son’s memory. Allies who worry that they don’t have the energy or the time or the money, or even the knowledge, to support LGBTQ causes might consider finding roles that play to their strengths. Everyone has potential to be an ally, and with the world we’re living in now, more people are starting to take up that responsibility.

Shepard does a lot of public speaking in her line of work, specifically at schools, and she says she’s encouraged by the fire she sees in young people. “I see what the kids are talking about and how they feel about what the world is like now, and those kids are mad, too ... They get it. They don’t care who they choose [to love], they don’t care what color anyone’s skin is or how they worship. They just want them to be good people, good citizens, kind and giving and working for a better society.”

And though we’re heading in the right direction, Shepard knows that there are ways to move us along a lot faster.

“That’s why we continue to tell Matt’s story,” Shepard says, “just hoping that everyone else will do it too. And [that’s] really been part of the change.”

Indy: You in particular have an interesting insight into our current political and cultural climate. Current events can be scary; what are your thoughts?

Judy Shepard: Well I am scared. I’m scared for everyone who is being marginalized by our leadership. People of color, the LGBTQ community — the DACA gauntlet being thrown down. All our Civil Rights issues that [have made] such progress under President Obama now being turned away, erased basically. It’s very frightening, and aggravating, and scary and just [a] really unfortunate turn of events. We all were starting to feel pretty safe and now we’re not anymore.

Do you think we’re still heading in the right direction? Maybe not politically, but as a culture?

Yes. I’ve thought that all along, that we were heading in the right direction. It’s been my opinion that the naysayers are the ones who don’t want civil rights to advance — or for acceptance to be a part of the American culture, the acceptance of difference — they’re the loudest. They make the most noise; they attract the most attention. And those of us who are moving forward, we’re moving forward, but we aren’t telling our stories, and I think that that has to change. Because we, as a culture overall, we do want to see acceptance for everyone, and the uprising of the supremacists and neo Nazis have been given more permission now to speak out.

There are arms of the media that are making it possible for them to do that, and some parts of the media even encouraging them, like Fox News and Breitbart and all the right-wing media people. They’ve created a very large bubble for themselves, and it’s a very loud bubble. That’s what’s garnering the attention, not the works of people who are making advances.

When you say we need to be telling our stories, what kind of stories do you think need to get out there?

Our stories of acceptance, and success. In the gay community for example, the corporate world has embraced acceptance and advancement for the gay community, and the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce is a huge success, even internationally now. And the Journalists Association! I think we need to tell our stories that [show that] we are organized, and we know how to do this now, and we’ve had our success and you cannot take this away from us now.

You can’t go backwards. So much has been done to go forwards, like marriage, adoption and those kinds of things. We need to be telling those stories about places where it’s accepted — in all the places, not just where we expect to see it like California — but in Colorado and Wyoming and the inner-mountain West and places where you may not expect to see it. And the South too. Great things are happening in the South, but you don’t read about it. You just read about the terrible things that are happening, and you think, “Oh, all of Mississippi must be like that” because even the numbers show that it’s very anti-gay, but [there are] thriving LGBTQ organizations and the highest number of same-sex couples is in Mississippi. That’s the kind of news that needs to be told, and people [need to] recognize that we are moving forward, regardless of what the pundits say. We could go forward even faster, in my opinion.

Even though I can only imagine the work you do is difficult for you, is that why you do it? To share Matthew’s story?

Yes. Both my husband and I, when Matt died, we got a lot of calls and letters from people asking us — begging us, really — to not let this opportunity go by when we have a voice, to use it to encourage other people to tell their stories and speak out. Because the gay community and allies were muted. And they were afraid to tell their stories because the world then was so anti-gay. They were given permission to be like that from the administration [at the time] and extreme, right-wing televangelists — all those folks making so much noise.

But if people would just tell their stories, everyone could see how much of the mainstream the gay community actually was. Yes, you need gay people. They’re your neighbors and your family members. They’re living lives just like you. The only difference is who they love, and why do you care? Yes, that’s why we continue to tell Matt’s story, just hoping that everyone else will do it too. And [that’s] really been part of the change. When Tim Cook [CEO of Apple] comes out, or athletes or famous people that everyone identifies with or wishes they were like [come out], they see that the gay community is an integral part of who we are.

All this work that you’ve done, what do you think makes it worth it?

I speak at a lot of schools, colleges, and occasionally a high school will ask me to come if they don’t think I’m as dangerous as other high schools. And I see what the kids are talking about and how they feel about what the world is like now, and those kids are mad, too. They’re mad that their friends are being threatened with being sent home to a country they don’t know. They’re mad that their gay friends are facing abuse, and even violence, committing suicide because of bullies. And yes those bullies still exist, but they are not the majority. They are not accepted by kids at school [or] looked up to the way they used to be.

The younger generation gets it because they know this is not the most important part of being a human. The most important part is accepting everybody, not singling out folks for harassment. They get it. They don’t care who they choose [to love]; they don’t care what color anyone’s skin is or how they worship. They just want them to be good people, good citizens, kind and giving and working for a better society. That’s what they’re looking for. And individuality. They’re embracing their individuality, which I think is brilliant. Coming from a generation where we all had to look alike and dress alike and wear our hair the same? Please, this is so much better!

What do you think caused that cultural shift?

I think the advancement of social media has had a lot to do with that. Just media in general. For example when I was a kid, way back when, we had one television channel. Now there are hundreds, and streaming, and YouTube, and you can see the wide variety of cultural experiences that are available to young people. I don’t agree with all of them; I think that some things have just become too commonplace for their own safety’s sake, but it also has some really good things, like telling kids they aren’t alone anymore.

I remember in the beginning when I started speaking I would go to a college and a young man in rural Ohio would say: “I thought I was the only one in my town. And when I would go online searching for a gay community, all I could find were drag queens, and I knew I wasn’t a drag queen,” and he said, “there was no one out there like me.” And now that’s just not true. And I think that’s helped them realize who they are, or at least think about who they are or who they can be. I think that’s wonderful.

Do you think education is the answer to ending bullying and hate crimes, or do you think it’s something else?

I think it is. Yes. In the perfect world, education is the answer. However, organizations like us, and many hundreds of them around the country, have tried to develop anti-bullying programs. On a national scale, it just doesn’t work. Because every area of the country — you can even narrow it down to every building in a district — is going to have a different idea about how to approach bullying. We’ve become such a litigious society that oftentimes school districts just shut their eyes and pretend it isn’t happening. They don’t want to deal with the parents of the bully; they don’t want to deal with the bully. They put the onus on the victim to try to prove what’s happening. That’s not how you make it better.

The bully has a problem, or he wouldn’t be a bully. There’s something going on with that person that they are lashing out at others. And I don’t think many districts are addressing that problem. Sending a bully home for two weeks because they’ve been bad doesn’t work. You have to address the problem. Some states have actually taken it very seriously. The state of New York [makes] schools follow procedures and rules, and you don’t have a choice. Other states haven’t’ taken that route. One set of parents can just bullocks up everything if you’re trying to make progress.

For example, they’re all in favor of anti-bullying programs as long as you don’t mention the LGBT community. If you live in Colorado Springs, you know exactly what that feels like. There’s an issue [of] getting it done and in a smart way. You can’t have an hour a year and talk about bullying and expect it to be effective. It doesn’t work that way. It has to be a course. It has to be every year, every semester. You have to keep talking about it, raising people’s awareness, and giving them safe ways to report incidents and safe ways to address the problem. It’s just not being taken seriously. Cyber bullying has made that even more difficult. When I was a kid, if you were bullied it was over when school was out. And now it follows you 24/7. So there’s just no way to get away from it now. I don’t know that there’s an answer to that, and I know there are a lot of people trying to work on the problem and developing ways to handle it, but to try to do it on a nationally recognized scale just doesn’t work. Trying to do something in the more accepting places in California, even in the less accepting places in California, they challenge that. So it’s a conundrum for sure.

Why do you think LGBTQ-specific bullying isn’t taken seriously by school districts?

I think there’s still this idea that there’s a discomfort with the LGBT kids, and I think a lot of adults think that it’s not who they are. [Being gay is] just the “in” thing to do now. They either have no personal experience with someone in the LGBT community, or they’re listening to their pastor tell them what to think. That’s a huge problem, and they don’t take it seriously because they know it’s the hot-button issue for a lot of parents. As I said, one set of parents can just screw up everything. And a lot of that is based on religion. You can’t be telling my kids that the gay kids are okay when we go to church on Sunday and they say it’s not, or I don’t agree with it, or it’s not a real thing, or it’s a choice. There’s still such a huge amount of ignorance and misunderstanding — willful in my opinion — about the gay community.

In your role as an ally what have you done personally to combat ignorance?

There hasn’t been a lot of that for us. We live in Wyoming. I was a part of PFLAG for a while, and did speaking with them. For me personally, I’m not really much help one-on-one because I just cry. I cry right along with them. I feel like my more important role is to fire up everybody else. It’s just my personality. I’m a good shoulder to cry on because I’m crying right there with you. And I don’t have answers. I don’t’ know how to make mom or grandma understand who [you are] because every situation is so different.

I view my role as one to remind folks why we do it, and why it’s important that we do it. But we all do it in a way that we choose, whether it’s definitely within our comfort zone or forcing ourselves out of our comfort zone. And I think that’s one good thing that’s happened currently, with the current administration. We understand we’ve become too complacent in thinking only good things are going to happen. Now that we know that’s not true, we have to remain vigilant, and I think we became very complacent in the way things were going.

Has it been encouraging to see the wave of protests?

It has. It’s been really encouraging that people are speaking out, people who ordinarily wouldn’t have done it, or didn’t feel like they had anything to add or weren’t mad enough to do it, or didn’t have a place. Even Wyoming, which I thought I’d never see, [people] are gathering, protesting everything that’s going on in Washington and our state legislature. That’s big here, and it’s happening everywhere. I’m very encouraged by it.

I’m also concerned that we have had to be so active these eight months that we’re going to get tired. We’ve done this every single day. I’ve called my congressman every single day, but am I going to do it every single day for the next x-amount of years to make change? That is a concern to me as well.

Along those lines, I asked a few straight friends about what it means to be an ally to them, and a few said, “I just treat my gay friends well, and that’s how I can be an ally to them.” I’m curious your thoughts on what defines someone as an ally. Is it just identifying and accepting? Or going beyond that?

I think the true definition goes beyond that. You can accept and love members of the community, but you’re their friend, you’re not an ally to the community. To be an ally requires some work. ... There’s a responsibility to being an ally besides accepting your friends. And part of that responsibility is also talking to your straight friends about your gay friends, and not saying, “well I have gay friends,” but talking about them like you would your other friends. You don’t have to label them, but you need to make your relationship with them as ordinary and normal as you do your straight friends. An allied parent, you need to have pictures out of your gay kids and their families and talk about their lives the same way you do your straight kids and their families and their lives. The labels aren’t really necessary, but you have to make them a part of the conversation.

I was at an event Indianapolis and there was a gentleman there who was high up in the education system who had a gay son, but he never told anyone. He said: “I’m accepting of my son and all his friends, that’s not really the issue. I just don’t talk about it to anyone else.” I’m going, “Well, I appreciate that you don’t think it’s necessary, but it is necessary. Because think of all the lives you could change if they knew you had a gay son and were accepting.”

So yes, you need to tell your stories and be outspoken and share your experiences like everything else. Volunteering and donating are super good, A-plus, but the talking and the conversations and the outward example — telling everybody else how you accept them. [Don’t] just be friends with the gay community, but broadcast it. ... And the issues. Be aware of the issues. Tell folks what the gay community doesn’t have, and there’s a lot of that.

For example, in over half the states, you can still be fired for being gay. The average person doesn’t know that, and it needs to be shared. And I know that there are allies out there who want to help — potential allies — who want to help but don’t know how. As a member of the community, you need to approach other people in work, let them know you’re organizing, approach them to donate money. But it’s the catch 22: The straight person is afraid to ask the gay person and the gay person is afraid to ask the straight person because they don’t want to be rejected, and the straight person doesn’t want to feel like an idiot ... We both have to get over that.

Is there anything else you want people to know about being an ally?

Just be a good and thoughtful person. Try to understand that being gay is not a choice. You are who you are, and you love who you love. Why would anyone choose that? That’s a constant question. Why would you do that, knowing you’re going to face harassment from some parts of society?

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