Parents of Hate Crime Victim Work for Tolerance and Acceptance
Eight years ago, 21-year-old college student Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten and left hanging over a split rail fence on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. The passerby who found Shepard, unconscious and mortally wounded, thought at first that the thin young man dangling from the wire was a scarecrow. Matthew Shepard's murderers killed him because he was gay; each is now serving two continuous life sentences.
The case became a national marker in the cause for gay rights, a clear sign that tolerance still has a ways to go in America. As prominent writer and gay rights activist Andrew Sullivan said: "I think a lot of gay people, when they first heard of that horrifying event, felt sort of punched in the stomach. I mean it kind of encapsulated all our fears of being victimized."
The killing alone was horrible - its aftermath showed many people what still had to be done. Anti-gay activists actually picketed Shepard's funeral, forcing his father to wear a bullet-proof vest just to deliver the eulogy, and they rallied in favor of the killers at the trial.
Before the murder, Matthew's parents Dennis and Judy Shepard didn't foresee a career as activists, as fundraisers, as organizers and philanthropic leaders. But now, as the founders of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, they are leading the fight for equality. We sat down with Judy Shepard recently to discuss her work on behalf of her son's memory - and what she's learned about American philanthropy in the process.
Cross-Posted from OnPhilanthropy.com
Q: Matthew would have turned 30 years old this month - has the world changed since he was taken from you? Are we a more tolerant society?
Shepard: The world has changed and for the better I think. Unfortunately, that is not what we read in the press. At the grassroots level there is a greater understanding and a desire to make things right - especially among young people. If I were to say more tolerant, I would be conceding that tolerance is all we are looking for. It is acceptance that is needed.
Q: You took the cause of justice in your son's murder and made it into a larger cause, creating a Foundation that in just a few years has created a real footprint. How has the Foundation evolved since you and your husband founded it in 1998?
Shepard: When we first started the Foundation, we didn't have a goal in mind. What we did have was some money sent by people who were deeply affected by what happened to Matt. We knew that the money had to benefit Matt's friends and community somehow. In the beginning, I think we were a memorial to Matt's memory and his story. Now we are a proactive Foundation with programs and a strong desire to educate those who are unaware of the issues facing the LGBT community.
Q: Many people are moved by a cause to attempt to establish a nonprofit - they want change and they want results. What have you learned about that process in the last eight years? What advice can you share with others?
Shepard: When I told people that I wanted to start a non-profit in Matt's name, I met with some resistance. Some felt that it might not be the road I should travel. I was adamant that this was my mission. Now I understand what the resistance was about.
It is very hard to establish your presence in a world that moves slowly and depends on others to move the message forward. I thought that it would be easy because of all the press and the thousands of letters and emails we received. I assumed these same people would support my desires to have a functioning non-profit organization to help the LGBT community.
It didn't work that way - at least not right away. The non-profit becomes your life. It is very hard to balance a life in the non-profit world and a life with family and friends. I didn't know that in the beginning. Collaboration with existing organizations is one way to advance the desire for change.
Q: How do you find fundraising - are you hesitant to ask for support? What's the reaction been to those who have been asked to give?
Shepard: I personally find it very hard to ask for money because my situation is so personal. However, once asked people are generally happy to participate at some level.
Q: We hear a lot about partnership and leverage in philanthropy these days. Has the Foundation been able to find important partners who help you to accomplish more together than you'd be able to on your own?
Shepard: We have been very fortunate that there are many organizations involved in LGBT issues who have been most generous to our Foundation. They have been generous in many ways - either with advice, collaboration and sometimes financially.
Q: What's the future for the Matthew Shepard Foundation?
Shepard: We have some great programs in the early phase of development. They are in the area of advocacy, outreach and education. We have just completed an educational supplement to help children understand the concept of respect for everyone. It is a very exciting time for us.