Frequently Asked Questions

After their son was killed, Judy and Dennis Shepard set out to ensure people recognize the role that hate plays in society, and to ask people to do all they can to erase that hate. They founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation on that principle, and the Foundation continues to create open dialogues with a diverse range of people in order to erase hate.

The Matthew Shepard Foundation tries to raise awareness and promote human dignity for everyone by engaging schools, corporations, and individuals in dialogues. These dialogues take many forms; some are presentations, some are interactive seminars, and some are web-based. Ultimately, we try to cross boundaries between straight and gay in order to bring people together.

It’s true that there are several very effective LGBTQ+ groups advocating for various issues, but the Foundation has a unique perspective. After Matthew was killed, Judy and Dennis began to campaign tirelessly not just for ‘gay rights,’ but for human dignity and acceptance. Over the years, it became clear that the advantage they had was their ability to speak to diverse audiences from their perspective as parents. As the Foundation has grown, we have added staff and board members who share that perspective and can also speak to a broad array of people. Because in the end, erasing hate is not a gay issue or a straight issue; it’s a human issue.

We have opened dialogues at countless schools, corporations and communities through our outreach and legacy projects. The Laramie Project continues to be a widely performed play. The documentary, Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine has touched so many people. We have also advocated for political change and were successful in passing the Matthew Shepard James Byrd Jr. Act in 2009.

While it’s true that many celebrities and notable personalities have lauded the work of the Foundation, most of our support comes from the grass-roots level. We operate many programs that bring in revenue, but like all non-profits, we rely on the generosity of a broad group of supporters to keep our doors open. Some years, we raise more money than others, but we have never been regularly supported by ‘celebrity money.’

While the Matthew Shepard Foundation is grateful that LGBTQ+ and gender-inclusive hate crimes legislation has finally been enacted at the federal level, the work doesn’t end there. Only when people talk about hate in society and how it affects them or the people they love, can we move towards erasing hate. The Foundation has taken a broad-based approach, bringing our unique perspective to corporate boards, school auditoriums, and community groups in an effort to get people to realize the importance of treating everyone with dignity and respect. Through our website, we offer tools that people can use in their everyday lives, as well as resources for young people.

Dennis and Judy were in Saudi Arabia, where Dennis was working at the time, when the hospital called to say Matt had been admitted with serious head injuries. There weren’t any details available at the moment other than that his condition was very critical and that they should come, so the Shepards began a long process to fly back. Needless to say, Dennis and Judy were in a state of confusion and shock—no one could explain what had happened, who was responsible, or why any of it had happened at all. That all came days later, when they found out it was a hate crime.

Matt’s death was a major historical event, which outraged millions of people and provoked discussion about legislation, social attitudes, public safety and the struggle for LGBTQ+ people to enjoy full equality. For a variety of reasons, Matt became a personal symbol of the injustice of hate crimes and a rallying point for the LGBTQ+ rights movement. Countless people of Matt’s generation chose to come out of the closet in support of the community when he was murdered. Others who felt even more afraid to do so later remembered his death when the ultimately chose to acknowledge their sexual orientation. He was also a very important example of the vulnerability of LGBTQ+ youth which was highly motivational for parents, teachers and other adults to reflect upon in choosing how to treat similar young people in their own lives.

During the 1999 trial proceedings against Matt’s killer Aaron McKinney, the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas protested in front of the courthouse in Laramie, Wyoming while waving vulgar signs and shouting hate speech. Matt’s friend Romaine Patterson and others fashioned angel costumes with broad white wings and encircled the church group, spreading their wings to make them impossible to see from the crowd where media cameras were located. This act is immortalized in the play (and later HBO production of) The Laramie Project.

At the beginning of 2015, the Foundation launched a new Hate Crimes Reporting Initiative. Currently, the reporting of hate crimes is not mandatory, and we are working within the law enforcement community to help them understand the importance of reporting these crimes.

The Foundation is for everyone. For all of these populations, and for anyone who is discriminated against or attacked because they are different, or perceived to be different. As the Shepards often state, these are not “gay rights” issues, these are human rights issues.

Significant progress? Yes. Enough? Of course not. There’s so much more to be done. And now we have the momentum to move on to the remaining challenges. Since Matt’s death, the way we talk about the LGBTQ+ community and hate crimes in this country has changed radically. The community is represented in government, entertainment and media, and business leadership. Military service, spousal immigration, hospital visits – these challenges are mostly if not entirely resolved. But “equality” is more than marriage equality. Your same-sex wedding photo on your desk at work can still get you fired fresh off your honeymoon. Bullying is an epidemic and youth are still harming themselves at an alarming rate. We’ve only just begun to even talk thoughtfully and constructively as a society about the advances the trans community still need to make. We have so much more to do.

We feel like our goals haven’t changed all that much, because changing hearts and minds is a lifetime commitment at this point. So many aspects of true equality for all Americans – not just LGBTQ+ Americans – are a slow process. We have the hate crimes law now, but it will require a huge number of police and prosecutors and victims and offenders to change the way they think and act in order for it to fulfill its potential to truly prevent bias crimes and protect communities. And that’s just one of the many issues. We’ve always said we’re working for the day when we can honestly say the Foundation isn’t needed anymore. It’s not here yet, but we’re closer than we’ve ever been.

In the aftermath of Matthew’s dead and for years following it, the legacy of “Matthew Shepard” sparked natural curiosity into details of his life—who was Matt, and why did this happen to him? In her New York Times bestseller The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed, Judy Shepard explores the family’s journey including Matthew’s life, the prosecution of his murderers, the ensuing media coverage, and the family’s continuing work to advance civil rights. The Foundation strongly encourages those interested in more details about Matt to read Judy’s book, where she shares memories, conversations and details about Matt’s life. Additionally, longtime friend and filmmaker Michele Josue created Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, which traveled the festival circuit all over the world and was released in theaters across the U.S. and Canada in 2015. The film is a feature-length documentary about Matt that “revisits the shocking case with never-before-seen photos, rare video footage, and new revelations about Shepard’s all-too-brief life.”

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