The Collegian
Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Judy Shepard turns son's death into teaching opportunity

"This is what happens when you piss off someone's mom," Judy Shepard said in her speech to 250 students, faculty, staff and community members on Tuesday night. Judy Shepard is the mother of Matthew Shepard, a college student who was killed because he was gay in 1998.

"The Laramie Project," this year's One Book, One Richmond selection, tells the story of the aftermath of Matthew Shepard's death. Judy Shepard's speech was the second event in the One Book, One Richmond program. She said her purpose was to make her audience think about hate in a different way.

Judy Shepard called society sick, spelled s.i.c. This stands for silent, indifferent, complacent. She said her solution was to educate people. Throughout her speech, she said the most important key to effect societal change was to tell everyone's stories. She said the LGBTQ community would not feel comfortable sharing their stories until others started.

"Change comes only when you talk about the change that is needed," she said.

Senior Dana McLachlin, who served as a student representative on the One Book, One Richmond planning committee, said that Judy Shepard's message was important to the University of Richmond because this campus is still learning how to navigate social difference.

"I hope we can use her message of overcoming hate and prejudice to better understand how structural inequalities shape institutions such as UR and impact our personal lives," McLachlin said.

Judy Shepard said when her son had told her he was gay, she had already known. She said that deep down most family members, especially mothers, would know if someone in the family was gay. Judy Shepard said they knew "right here" and touched the back of her head.

"But bringing it from the back to the front is the challenge," she said.

Judy Shepard encouraged anyone in the audience to talk to their family about their sexual orientation if they hadn't already. She said keeping that part of your life a secret was selfish.

"You've missed out on an open and honest relationship because you made the decision that she [a mother] couldn't handle it," she said.

Judy Shepard said that the United States has made great strides legally with both hate crimes and sexual orientation discrimination. She said voting was the only way to see more political change. But, she said communication was still the most important way to fight hate.

"We are not going to change hearts and minds by laws," she said.

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Kerstin Soderlund, associate dean of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, said Judy Shepard was a perfect example of a leader working to enact change. She said civic engagement is often talked about on college campuses, but Judy Shepard works tirelessly to effect that change.

Judy Shepard said that although they are not as heard of now, hate crimes are still happening and are vastly under-reported. She said that although there was a lot of work left to do, she has a lot of hope for the future and is encouraged by the progress that has been made.

"Things are changing in a really good way, and I wish Matt were here to see it, to enjoy it, to learn from it," she said.

The next One Book, One Richmond event is a Center for Civic Engagement Brown Bag lunch discussion called "Out in the Media: LGBTQ Identity and News Coverage." It is on Oct. 4 from 12:30-1:25 p.m. in Tyler Haynes Commons, Room 305.

Contact staff writer Katie Evans at

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