Murder of gay son turns parents to activism



By Joshua Qualls

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In October 1998, Judy Shepard’s son, Matthew, died six days after he was brutally beaten and left to die just outside of Laramie, WY.

Eleven years passed as she and her husband, Dennis, waited and advocated for comprehensive state and federal legislation to pass and officially recognize their son’s murder as a hate crime.

Matthew was gay.

The Shepards visited UK to tell their story at a panel discussion called “Redefining Hate Crimes: The Legacies of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr.” on Thursday.

The event was hosted by UK’s LGBTQ* director, Lance Poston, and featured experts from the region as guest speakers.

Panel members included Kerry Harvey, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky, David Brennen, the dean of UK’s College of Law and Major Nathan Brown of the UK Police Department.

“The motivation for a hate crime is, in Matthew’s case, because he was perceived to be gay,” Harvey said. “It doesn’t just traumatize the victim of that crime, it traumatizes a whole group of people.”

Federal hate crimes laws generally protect people who are targeted because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, race, religion and physical disabilities, Harvey said. The federal laws protect people who are in those categories, but it also protects people who are perceived to be in those categories.

Although hate crimes legislation has become more inclusive at the federal level because of the federal government’s Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, Shepard said there are still problems because it doesn’t require state and local authorities to report hate crimes.

“There are a lot of holes in the law,” Brennen said. “This only applies when you are under the coverage of the federal law.”

Though a federal court found Wyoming’s ban on same-sex marriages unconstitutional in October 2014 and the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges made it legal in Kentucky on June 26 this year, both states have yet to pass comprehensive hate crimes legislation — especially pertaining to sexual orientation and gender identity. Sexual orientation is protected by hate crimes legislation in Kentucky but gender identity is not, and Wyoming has yet to adopt any such legislation.

In 2015, an advocacy group called Compete Wyoming formed to lobby for LGBTQ* anti-discrimination laws in the state. After passing through every other level of the state government, it was rejected in Wyoming’s house of representatives February 24.

Poston said his office — in collaboration with the Violence Intervention and Prevention Center, the Counseling Center, the Martin Luther King Center and the UKPD, among others — works to protect all UK students from all forms of discrimination on campus.

Poston said there are three parts to dealing with hate crimes on campus: education, advocacy and response. While Poston said his office mainly focuses on educating the student population about the LGBTQ* community and advocating its causes, its general purpose is to provide resources to students and to keep them safe. This includes working to push policies that would deter discrimination.

“A program that my office is focusing on rolling out by the end of this fall term is a safezone workshop, which is … essentially LGBT 101,” said Poston. The program would educate students about what communities are included in LGBTQ*, what there is to celebrate about them and what challenges they face.

Poston said it is essential for students to know about the offices available to them to deal with discrimination and hate crimes on campus. He said the UKPD is another valuable resource students could use.

“We have a campus police who is proactive,” Poston said. “(They aren’t) just waiting to have one of these horrendous occurrences happen, but are making sure that students are educated … and stay safe on campus from the (Livesafe) app.”

Major Brown said UK students and faculty could also feel safe because UK police are required to report everything.

“We are the first responders here on campus,” Brown said. “The first people who are going to come is the UK Police Department.”

Before the event was over, Shepard encouraged audience members to help promote the Equality Act, which intends to end LGBTQ* discrimination altogether.

“We felt like we owed it to Matt and his friends to try to make a change,” Shepard said. “I like to think that his loss wasn’t in vain.”

To learn more about the Shepard family and their mission, visit and