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‘The Meaning of Matthew…’ – Judy Shepard’s journey, and crusade for gay rights

Tuesday, September 8, 2009
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The 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard shocked the nation.

The 21 year-old college student was viciously murdered in Laramie, WY, bludgeoned to death while tied to a fence. Matthew was targeted because he was gay.

Meaning-of-Matthew-coverMatthew’s death and the subsequent trial and convictions of his attackers incited demonstrations and debates over gay rights. For many, it revealed the dangers of being gay in America, and for most gays and lesbians, it reaffirmed the risk they live with every day.

More than 10 years since Matthews’ death, his mother Judy Shepard’s continues to lead a movement for hate crimes legislation, and says there hasn’t been nearly enough progress on gay rights.

In her new book, The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed, Judy Shepard (pictured, below right) documents the terror and loss of her son, reliving her son’s life up until that fateful early morning in 1998, and the choice she made to become an international gay rights activist.

And the release of Judy’s book comes on the cusp of new legislation as Congress moves closer to passing the hate-crimes bill she has lobbied for a decade to pass. The Matthew Shepard Act would extend federal protections to people victimized because of sexual orientation.

Judy ShepardLawmakers, however, have tried, and failed, to pass federal hate crimes protections five times since 1997, and continue to bow out because pressure from conservatives who argue that the law would censor free speech.

Shepard, who makes some 50 speeches a year advocating for hate crimes legislation that includes sexual orientation and gender identity, may finally see that day come. Now, a Democratic-controlled Congress and a willing President Obama offer the best odds so far to amend the law.

And in her book, Judy Shepard hopes people see her son in a different way. For the first time in book form, she speaks about her loss, sharing memories of Matthew, their life as a typical American family, and the pivotal event in the small college town that changed everything.

The Meaning of Matthew… not only captures the historical significance and complicated civil rights issues surrounding one young man’s life and death, but it also chronicles one ordinary woman’s struggle to cope with the unthinkable.

He was “so much more than ‘Matthew Shepard, the gay 21-year-old University of Wyoming college student,’ ” she writes in an author’s note. “He had a family and countless friends. He had a life before the night he was tied to that fence.”

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