Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : April 13th 2014 Contents By Roslyn Carrington
ON THE SCALE OF THINGS, some might consider the murder of
American Matthew Shepard a minor event. People die. Wars are
fought, children starve, and we at home are fed a bloody menu of
murder every day. Almost 16 years ago, one young man lost his
life. One family lost a son. One rural community lost a promising
young member. You might be tempted to say, So what?
But few die like Matthew did. Abducted by two young men, he
was driven to a remote area, severely beaten, tied to a fence and
left for dead. Why? Because he was gay. The brutality, pointless-
ness, and sheer evil of the act shocked not just his home country,
but the world. The horror and outrage that resulted from his death
rolled out in ripples, which grew into waves, which grew into a
tsunami of justice that changed the world.
MATTHEW DID NOT DIE IN VAIN
Since then, legislation has been introduced the world over to pro-
tect people who are "different" from hate or discrimination. Books
and films have sprung up, like flowers fertilised by the drops of
Mathew's blood, soaked into the earth. Struggling to find a way to
make good come from their son's death, Judy and Dennis Shepard
created the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an NGO aimed at pro-
moting understanding and acceptance of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-
sexual and transgender) people. "We promote acceptance, not
tolerance," stresses Judy.
"There's a big difference. You tolerate a bad hair day; you accept
people." The couple is in Trinidad for just a few days, speaking to
interested groups, hoping that the dialogue they open up can lead
to greater awareness of the difficulties faced by the LGBT com-
munity. "Things change when people talk," Judy explains. "When
they share their stories, they find out they aren't alone."
Because Matthew's sexual orientation was the motive for his
murder, the Foundation focuses on spreading understanding
based on sexual orientation, but they also offer hope to young
people who are bullied for other reasons. They work with parents
who may not be sure how to deal with the challenges faced by
their children. "We get a lot of requests from young people who
know their friends are gay, and just want to help them. We're an
OPENING UP GLOBAL DIALOGUE
Their reputation has extended so far beyond US borders that they
have been invited to speak in 18 other countries, even to places in
the Middle East and eastern Europe that don't have a reputation
for open-minded acceptance of "other" sexual orientations. All told,
their gruelling schedule sees them on the road for about six
months out of the year.
But the effort is worth it. "In some countries, laws are being
changed; there is discussion taking place. Gay Pride parades are
less chaperoned by police. Meetings are being held between
groups, so they can get organised and help each other."
SQUELCHING HATE WITH LOVE
The flip side of that coin, though, is the fierce resistance that the
Foundation faces from people opposed to homosexuality, usually
on religious grounds. Judy shrugs them off, not even bothering to
engage. "They're entitled to think the way they do. They just don't
have the right to infringe on the rights of others." One of the ugli-
est confrontations the Shepards have faced was from the notori-
ous, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, who first came into
the international spotlight by gleefully picketing Matthew's funeral,
hurling ugly taunts at mourners, and claiming that his horrific
death was God's justice.
While the rest of the world is sickened by the attention-seeking an-
tics of these hate-mongers, the Shepards prefer to focus on the lov-
ing acts that balance them out. Judy smiles when she describes how
a group of Matthew's friends decided to block the protesters from
view, using pure white angel costumes with towering, (Minshal-
lesque) wings. The Angels have now become a worldwide move-
ment, obscuring the view whenever such ugliness raises its head.
Even after the recent death of Fred Phelps Snr, the founder of
Westboro Baptist, and the architect of its hideous gospel, the cou-
ple isn't bitter. "We understand the family's right to grieve
It accomplishes nothing to say something hateful." On t
end of the religious spectrum, there are more pro
churches that have supported the Shepards, and even
them to speak. "I never thought God was a vengeful an
god. He made us different to bring more colour into o
While they don't consider themselves religious in a form
they acknowledge the greatness of God through the mo
and the skies. "That's my cathedral," says Dennis.
HUMAN RIGHTS, NOT GAY RIGHTS
They are careful to explain that they don't promote "gay
"There's no such thing," says Dennis. "They aren't asking
thing special, just the same rights as everyone else. To m
jobs, adoption, inheritance, hospital visits, taxation ... equa
tion under the law. They should have the same opportu
succeed or fail on their own."
"And why would you care if they're gay?" adds Judy. "W
love doesn't affect you. You should care whether they a
people, good citizens."
"And it's not a choice," says Dennis. "Who chooses to be beat
or murdered? Nobody. They want to fit in." Amazingly, the S
hold no hate in their hearts for their son's killers, who rec
sentences, avoiding the death penalty largely because of D
tervention. "We lost Matt; their families lost those two boy
A PARENT'S LOVE IS WHERE IT STARTS
One of the most painful stories the Shepards encountere
their tours is that of a 16-year-old boy who "came out" to his
while she was driving him to school --- and was immediate
out of the car. He hasn't seen her since. "How do you do
child you loved five seconds before that?" muses Dennis
mits to feeling a bit disappointed when Matthew "came
him, purely because he had been looking forward to teac
grandchildren the wonders of the outdoors. "But it made n
ence. As parents our first role is to be there for our kids.
them, no matter what."
A member of Fierce, a group of primarily LGBTQ 'you
colour', speaks to supporters in Washington Square
8th Annual Trans Day of Action on June 22, 2012 in
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