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Twenty-Two Years of Progress: Matthew Shepard’s Story

Matthew Shepard died 22 years ago today, on Oct. 12, 1998.

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Shepard, an openly gay University of Wyoming student, passed away at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colo., six days after sustaining severe head injuries in a horrific beating motivated by anti-gay hate.

Over the course of those six nightmarish days, Matthew’s mother Judy, his father Dennis and younger brother Logan agreed they had a shared responsibility to tell Matthew’s story, in hopes of preventing others from suffering a similar fate.   

Judy discussed this pact in a recent interview for WorldatWork’s “Work in Progress” podcast, as part of WorldatWork’s designation of October as Workplace Equity Month.

“We made a pledge while Matt was still in the hospital … that we were going to do whatever we could do [to make sure that] people could learn from Matt’s story.”

Leveling the Playing Field for LGBTQ

The Shepard family wasted no time turning their hospital-room pledge into action.

Within months of Matthew’s passing, Judy and Dennis established the Matthew Shepard Foundation, a Denver-based non-profit that describes its mission as amplifying Matthew’s story “to inspire individuals, organizations and communities to embrace the dignity and quality of all people.”

Judy Shepard is the founding president of the Foundation’s board of directors, and also served as the organization’s first executive director from 1999 to 2009.

In her current capacity as the Foundation’s board president, Judy crisscrosses the U.S. speaking about the causes that Matthew championed during his life: social justice, diversity awareness and education, and equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, for example.

A self-described introvert, Shepard never sought to be an activist in the public arena. But she’s acquitted herself quite well in front of all types of audiences, including in sit-downs with members of Congress’s LGBT Equality Caucus

In an occasionally emotional conversation with WorldatWork, Shepard took stock of the progress for the LGBTQ community and other traditionally underrepresented groups that her efforts on the road —and sitting with Congress members — have helped forge.

There’s the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, for example. Signed into law by then-President Barack Obama in 2009, the Act criminalized willfully causing bodily injury when the crime was committed because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability of any person.

That bill wouldn’t have become a reality without the work of Shepard and other activists like her. And she proudly sat in the Executive Mansion when it was signed into law on Oct. 28, 2009.  

“To be in the White House with that wonderful collection of folks, and to now have federal hate crime laws that protect the gay community, was an amazing culmination of what I felt all of our nagging was about,” Shepard told WorldatWork.

Much work remains to be done, of course. And the soft-spoken, reserved Shepard isn’t shy when sharing what she views as necessary next steps on the road to equity for LGBTQ individuals.

“There’s a piece of legislation gathering dust on Sen. [Mitch] McConnell’s desk, called The Equality Act, that, legislatively, would pretty much take care of protecting members of the LGBTQ community in the workplace, in public places, in housing.”

Indeed, the Act would amend existing civil rights law, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fair Housing Act and multiple laws regarding employment with the federal government, to explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics.

“The Equality Act is the best attempt at legally leveling the playing field,” said Shepard. “That’s a good start. If we could get the Senate to act on that [legislation], that would be brilliant.”

Setting an Example in the Corporate Sector

While frustrated by a lack of progress on the legislative front, Shepard applauds the strides made in the corporate sector. She singles out the emergence of employee resource groups as an example of how employers can serve as powerful advocates for LGBTQ equality.

More broadly, “it was really corporations who started to turn everything around for the gay community, when [companies started to make] it their policy to not discriminate against LGBTQ employees,” she said. “And when the Human Rights Campaign started doing its Corporate Equality Index and sort of nudging businesses along … that was a big step.”

Putting policies on paper is an important first step. But it’s just that: a first step. And Shepard urges employers to ask themselves if they’re really doing all they can to create an environment that discourages discrimination against any group of employees, LGBTQ or otherwise.

“Are you following through [on written policies]? Is middle management still a problem? Do you still have that homophobic middle manager who’s harassing [certain employees]? And who are [these employees] going to tell if it’s happening to them? You need a safety net for employees who have a story to tell.”

As with any other enterprise-wide initiative, corporate leadership must lead by example in the effort to eliminate this type of harassing, discriminatory behavior.  

“I can’t tell you how many corporations [there are] where everyone at corporate HQ is great, but their offices around the country … not so much,” said Shepard.

“That’s a real challenge, and there needs to be a way to make sure that it goes all the way from the top to the bottom. And what influences this more than anything is corporate leadership. … If your leadership isn’t espousing those ideas [of equality] and showing that support, then you’re going to lose it somewhere along the way.”

Shephard has worked too hard to advance this movement in the 22 years since her son’s senseless death to see it lose momentum now, in the workplace or elsewhere. She’s rightfully proud of the progress that’s been made, and the vital role the Matthew Shepard Foundation has played in this fight.

For example, the organization has provided hate crime training to more than 1,000 law enforcement officers and more than 70 prosecutors in the last three years alone. The Foundation also built a collection of resources to support The Laramie Project, a 2000 play (and a 2002 film) that examined the aftermath of Matthew’s murder and is frequently used to teach tolerance and prejudice in schools in the U.S. and abroad.

And, of course, there’s the 2009 legislation that bears Matthew’s name. That was obviously a milestone achievement for the Shepard family, the Foundation and for LGBTQ individuals everywhere. But Judy Shepard is far from finished.

“People say, ‘Now that you’ve accomplished that, are you done? Well, no,” Shepard said matter-of-factly. “In 2009, we still didn’t have [legal] gay marriage, we still had ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in place. Now, most of those things are gone. But until the gay community is granted a level playing field, we’re still going to be out here.”

About the Author

Mark McGraw Bio Image

Mark McGraw is the managing editor of Workspan.


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