Westhampton, MA – August 30, 2009
Richard AmmonGlobalGayz.com

Can there be any stronger sacrifice to the cause of truth or principle than the death of a person? The truth is that Matthew Shepard was gay. His murderers killed him for the vague principle that killing or maiming gays is okay.

Sanctioned homophobia comes from churches, schools, workplaces, homes, publications and the Internet. Gay, lesbian and transsexual people are targeted for discrimination and damage every American day from coast to coast. The principle is that homosexuality is not okay and the truth is that queer people less famous than Matthew are regularly attacked by self-appointed vigilantes of one or more angry straight people acting on behalf of this deadly principle.

Matthew was killed on October 6, 1998 and it took eleven years, until 2009, to get hate crime legislation passed that includes sexual orientation. Such a change in the law was vetoed by the previous Republican administration. The thought staggers the intelligent mind. The unintelligent mind shrugs and thinks ‘what’s the big deal…people get killed every day.’

The big deal is a murderous ‘headset’ that can lead any malcontent to pick up a weapon and commit a crime and still think it is all right because bashing gays is suggested, implied or advocated by voices in the special-interest media obviously backed religious influence.

The change happened in April 2009 in the the House of Representatives and on July 16, 2009 in the Senate when they approved an expansion of federal “hate crime” laws to include attacks based on a victim’s sexual orientation, gender identity or mental or physical disability. President Obama’s signature is pending since the crimes law change is attached to a huge complicated defense bill part of which he opposes.

In a strange twist of fate, Senator Edward Kennedy first introduced the enhanced crimes bill (now called the Matthew Shepard Act) more than a decade ago; it is Kennedy’s final success before his demise on August 25, 2009.

New Book

The tale of a son destroyed and his family’s lives forever altered is the story told by Matthew’s mother Judy Shepard in a new book ‘The Meaning of Matthew – My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed (Hudson Street Press; 273 pages; $25.95).

Review by Elizabeth Kennedy of the San Francisco Chronicle

Before Judy Shepard arrived at her son’s side in a Fort Collins, Colo., hospital, every national newspaper had already broadcast her private tragedy to the world: Gay Man Beaten and Left for Dead; Two Are Charged.

Matthew Shepard was 21 years old, the young victim of an especially violent hate crime. On Oct. 6, 1998, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, of Laramie, Wyo., lured Shepard from a college tavern, robbed him, beat him unconscious and left him for dead in the elements, tied to a split-rail fence on the outskirts of a Walmart parking lot. Shepard died in the hospital five days later. He never regained consciousness.

More than a decade since, Judy Shepard, still doggedly advocating for a national hate crimes act in her son’s name, has revisited this world of hurt to produce an unalloyed memoir of remarkable clarity and restraint.

“He was my friend, my confidant, my constant reminder of how good life can be,” she writes, “and ultimately how hurtful.” Ironically, the more tenderly Shepard asserts the singular nature of her relationship with her son – “the normal bond between mother and child was for some reason stronger between us” – the more universal the example of their connection becomes.

Shepard begins her book with a glimpse into the all-American family before disaster struck. She and husband Dennis had met at a fraternity party and fallen in love. They were good, country folk; her father the small-town postmaster in the same office as her mother, his father a veteran of World War II. Their boys, Matthew and Logan, learned to hunt, fish, camp and ride horses alongside their grandfather in the summertime. Matthew excelled at theater, showed moments of incredible empathy as a big brother, and grew into his mercurial teenage phase with clockwork precision.

Privy to such an intimate portrait of a loving, imperfect, everyday family, readers may be shattered when Shepard then proceeds – methodically, specifically – to trace the sickening slide toward Matthew’s anguished death. And as Detectives Rob DeBree and Jeff Bury piece together the order of events, Judy Shepard is learning details no mother should possess about her son: that a hard strike of a Smith & Wesson .357 magnum pistol butt crushed his skull, that he was discovered slumped on the ground and caked in blood except for the tear streaks down his face, that he screamed for mercy.

Shepard presents both McKinney and Henderson even-handedly, recounting details of their broken families, itemizing their rap sheets, their drug abuse, grisly particulars of the other crimes they had committed that night. Excerpts of her court statements measure out both rage and compassion. Her husband read, “I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy.”

As plainspoken and unassuming as this memoir is, the scenes from the life interrupted are indelible: both parents watching on a hallway monitor as their son Logan weeps over the unresponsive body of his brother; their being shuttled through the courthouse parking garage only to come face-to-face – in a sudden, chilling instant – with McKinney; their sorting through tens of thousands of letters or standing before throngs of journalists and sympathizers to try to articulate how all this makes them feel. Shepard is at her best when she lets her guard down and speaks frankly, as a mother and an activist with a wincingly simple message, “Go home, give your kids a hug, and don’t let a day go by without telling them that you love them.”

Elizabeth Kennedy is a freelance writer in Oakland. E-mail her at books@sfchronicle.com.