NEW YORK — The parents of Matthew Shepard, the gay Wyoming college student tortured and murdered in 1998, are traveling to Russia on Friday to spread their message of tolerance and acceptance in a country where anti-gay policies and attitudes are widespread.
The centerpiece of their five-day trip is a gay film festival in St. Petersburg at which the documentary film, “Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine” will be shown and discussed. The film’s director, Michele Josue, a high school classmate and close friend of Matthew’s, will be accompanying the Shepards on the trip.
The Shepards also will visit Moscow, and are hoping to meet with Russian parents who have gay or lesbian children.
“This is about families loving their kids, no matter who they are,” Judy Shepard said Thursday. “If families would recognize that, everyone else would recognize it.”
The Shepards said they’d been briefed about current conditions in Russia, where gay activists often have been attacked or harassed in recent years and where a 2013 law outlawing the dissemination of “gay propaganda” to minors is widely viewed as a warning signal to the gay-rights movement.
Josue and the Shepards said they’ve been cautioned that disruptions could occur at the film festival, and that the authorities might be monitoring those in attendance.
The Side by Side film festival has been an annual event in St. Petersburg since 2008, when it was held in secrecy after the planned venues were ordered closed. The featured films last year included “Milk,” the story of pioneering American gay politician Harvey Milk.
The festival has been denounced by Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg politician known for his anti-gay statements. In comments carried by Rusnovosti news service, he called the event “socially unnecessary” and suggested that its sponsors be sanctioned. Milonov was the sponsor of a local anti-gay law in St. Petersburg that became the model for the national law signed by President Vladimir Putin last year.
Josue has presented her film in several countries, but she said none of the others had a climate as hostile to gays as Russia.
“We’ve been preaching to the choir,” she said. “It’s important to get our film seen by a community that didn’t have access to it.”
Matthew Shepard, at the time of his murder, was a 21 year-old student at the University of Wyoming. His death became a rallying cry for the U.S. gay-rights movement and was a factor in the passage of federal hate-crimes legislation in 2009.
His parents formed a foundation named after their son to promote acceptance and civil-rights protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. In their role as activists, they have made numerous trips abroad in the past several years, many with support from the U.S. State Department. Destinations have included Poland, Jamaica, Mexico, Latvia, Singapore and Taiwan.
During their visit to Poland, a group of parents were so moved by the Shepards’ story that they founded a parental advocacy group, Akceptacja, to campaign against anti-gay bias. The Shepards hope for a similar response in Russia, and they also hope their message reaches some of the Russians with virulent anti-gay attitudes.
Judy Shepard said she’d like to ask them, “What if your baby was gay? If your child turns out that way, are you just going to throw them away?”
As much as they hope to make an impact, the Shepards aren’t expecting rapid change in Russia.
“Putin has made it so unhealthy to be LGBT or an ally,” Dennis Shepard said. “It will take at least a generation to clean up the mess he’s made and get some acceptance.”