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Remembering Matthew Shepard

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(Images courtesy of the Matthew Shepard Foundation)

In honor of their 20 years of work, we spoke with Executive Director Jason Marsden about the legacy of the Matthew Shepard Foundation. 

Matthew Shepard would have turned 42 years old this December 1st, had he not been attacked and left to die in October 1998 on account of his sexual orientation. This tragedy was turned into a beacon of perseverance, as Matt’s parents used their grief to advocate for a safer and more compassionate world. Since then, the Matthew Shepard Foundation has been serving America’s LGBTQ+ community to push for visibility, inclusivity and safety. They urge the community to honor Matt’s memory by advocating for change in our daily lives, which we can do through embracing diversity and erase hatred.

True Q’s editor talked to Jason Marsden, the Executive Director of the Foundation. Jason has been serving in this position for ten years. He was a volunteer since the beginning, and a personal friend of Matt’s.

Kaylee: I figured we could start with a summary about the creation of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, and some of the things you all do.
Jason: When Matt was in the hospital, and after he died, thousands of people sent sympathy cards, get-well cards, letters and other messages, as well as over a 100,000 emails — which was extraordinary in that era — to the Shepards, expressing their grief or hope for social change. A lot of people had enclosed donations. No one really had asked them to do that. The Shepards really had to spend some time thinking about what the appropriate use of those funds would be. They felt, because of the extraordinary media coverage, that they had an opportunity to take advantage of people’s attention to anti-gay hate crimes and to hatred in general against the LGBT community.

So they created the Matthew Shepard Foundation as a vehicle to advance their work. At that time, they thought maybe it would go on for a few years, while there was media and public interest in the case. They focused initially on trying to convince parents to accept and embrace their LGBT kids, and to advocate for LGBT-inclusive hate crime legislation. That work began in the winter after Matt’s death. Unlike a lot of similar organizations that arise out of an individual tragedy, it has continued to hold public interest and they have continued to do that work.

What different types of work does the Foundation do?
Our primary work is to raise awareness around hate crimes. All hate crimes — racial, religious, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability. The vast majority of hate crimes are not about sexual orientation. We work on the issue broadly, in coalition with groups that represent other minority identity communities. We try to raise awareness amongst people who may be victimized.

We urge victims to report. The majority of victims of hate crimes who are surveyed report that they did not notify the police that they were victimized, for a variety of reasons — mistrust of police, fear of being outed. Not every state or locality has a hate crime law, despite the federal law. That only applies to capital felonies. The vast majority of hate crimes are simple assault, vandalism, burglary, property destruction. There are five states that don’t have hate crime legislation at all. [Editor’s note: Those five states are Arkansas, Georgie, Indiana, South Carolina and Wyoming.] Across the 50 states, who’s included in that law and how severe the punishments are varies wildly.

On the enforcement side, we work with police and prosecutors across the country. We hold hate crimes training for police officers or district attorneys, somewhere in the country that either has a higher rate of hate crimes or has demonstrated a lack of reporting in their statistics. In most states, police don’t get hate crime training in cadet programs at their academies. That’s changing, slowly. We have legal and law enforcement professionals who provide those trainings, free of cost to the departments and communities where we see a need.

Matt Shepard.

We urge law enforcement agencies to report. The FBI collects statistics on hate crimes every year, from the roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies around the country. But it’s not mandatory for the departments to report those statistics. And it’s not mandatory for them to make sure those statistics are particularly accurate. In 2017, for instance, 87% of law enforcement agencies reported that they have zero hate crimes in their jurisdiction. We know from social science and from Department of Justice Research that just isn’t true. They either didn’t hear from the victims, they didn’t take in the case in a way that identified it as a hate crime, or something else went wrong with the reporting process.

We work very hard to try to persuade municipalities and counties and make sure their police and sheriffs are actually providing meaningful statistics. We did see an increase in reporting in the last year, but there’s quite a bit to go. There’s close to 2,000 agencies out there that still are not providing their statistics. That just starves the public of information about hate crimes. It makes it harder for them to be aware and to protect themselves.

Beyond that, we do other work more broadly around advancing understanding and compassion. We support productions of The Laramie Project all over the world. We support productions of other works that commemorate Matt. There’s a beautiful choral oratorio called “Considering Matthew Shepard” touring the country. There’s a wonderful documentary film, Matt Shepard Is A Friend Of Mine, that’s frequently shown in festivals, colleges and other institutions. There’s a book of poetry dedicated to Matt (October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard) by Leslea Newman, who’s a highly regarded lesbian poet.

We talk to the media and we talk to community organizations. We do speaking engagements at colleges and schools, and participate in panels and conferences devoted to these issues. We do that all with our little staff, and Judy and Dennis Shepard, and a budget of about a million dollars a year.

In the past 20 years, how have people’s thoughts and perceptions about the reporting and prevention of hate crimes changed?
I started in 2009, which was the year the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crime Prevention Act was passed and signed into law by President Obama. That was the first major change that occurred — that sexual orientation and gender identity became covered under the federal hate crime law. We and many other organizations had been pressing for that legislation for over ten years.

That’s when we started participating more aggressively in hate crimes trainings for law enforcement. Because there was a brand new law, and there was a huge need to educate police and prosecutors about it, in those first few years after it passed.

We started to see much higher visibility around the issue of hate crimes. Gradually, we started to see local media cover local cases a little more frequently and comprehensively. We started to see prosecutions under the act. We started collecting case studies of actual hate crimes that occurred, so that we could talk to the public and law enforcement and law makers concretely about examples of why the law mattered, and why the law should be enforced as thoroughly as possible.

During those early years, the marriage equality debate started to make advances in public opinion and in the legal system. The groundwork was completed to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, to allow members of the military to serve openly. All of those changes started to impel other changes in the workplace, in schools and in anti-bullying efforts. There was just a very broad feeling amongst LGBT people and their allies, that we were on a really obvious forward path to achieving these goals.

Starting in 2015, and continuing through last year, hate crimes started to go up again, for the first time in a long time. There had been a long, very gradual downturn in the number of hate crimes reported every year. In 2015, they went up, and they went up again in 2016, and again in 2017, which was the first time in this century that they’ve gone up three years in a row. This past year, they went up by 17%. There’s a statistically significant increase in the number of people who are being victimized based on their identity.

There are a lot of policy reversals that are being attempted, and there’s a much more hostile social climate towards minorities in the U.S. than there was three years ago. I think political rhetoric has played a very large part in that. It’s played a large part in the number of hate crimes increasing.

It’s really got the attention of people in every minority identity community, that our social progress is in peril of reversal. Also, as individuals, we’re potentially more likely to be victimized, as a result of that social and political climate. We can definitely look back and see meaningful progress. But this current political atmosphere is a very strong reminder that progress can be taken away, if we’re not vigilant about protecting it.

On another subject, the different artistic projects supported by the Foundation, why do you think using art is such an effective and meaningful way to share your message?
I think artistic works will be the chief way in which Matt’s legacy will attained and preserved. I like to explain what we do by saying that people aren’t reasoned out of things that they weren’t reasoned into in the first place. Homophobia, racism, sexism, other forms of bigotry are engrained and learned behaviors that come from people’s upbringing and their social climate. Most of the time, they don’t make a rational choice to believe those things. What’s helpful about artistic works that tell Matt’s story is that they cause people to feel empathy and greater understanding for Matt as a fellow human being, and rethink the way that they respond to hatred and other forms of conflict between demographic groups.

It’s our hope, and a reasonably well-documented one, that when people sit through a production of The Laramie Project, or they listen to “Considering Matthew Shepard,” or they read moving poetry, or they hear Melissa Etheridge’s song or Elton John’s song about Matt, that it reaches them in a different way. A way that makes it harder for them to dismiss the issue and more likely to feel something warm and compassionate. We are always looking for a way to get through people’s intellectual and ideological defenses, to make them understand at a more human and visceral level what hatred can do to people, to families, to communities.

The Shepards at a speaking engagement.

The Laramie Project and other works just really lay that out there — how much grief and anger and sorrow and regret and disagreement come out of something as horrible as a high-profile hate crime in your town. It challenges people to think, “how would we respond if that happened here? What have I done as an individual person to be part of the solution?” Those are all questions people don’t wake up in the morning expecting to ask themselves, but that really present themselves when they experience one of these works.

It’s the same with Judy and Dennis speaking. I’ve seen them go speak in front of sixth graders. The students know that these are parents whose son was killed because he was gay. You could hear a pin drop in those presentations. They ask thoughtful questions. “What role does religion play in this?” “Why was it so hard to get this law passed?” Questions that adults should be asking, frankly.

We can tell that it’s because they felt for these people; they see these folks in front of them, talking to them, who are obviously still in mourning. And they get it. It works that way with adult audiences, too, but especially with kids. We find that we can make them feel a little bit more about why this is important. The thinking will come later if they’re inspired to consider the issue. Reaching them on an empathetic, emotional plane — at whatever age — is the most effective way to get people to shift their beliefs.

So what’s next for the Matthew Shepard Foundation? Anything planned for the next 20  years?
We already have more than a dozen law enforcement agencies on our waiting list for hate crimes training next year. We’ll be hard-pressed to do all of those, unless we can grow our teams. We’re teaming up with a university, a couple other nonprofits and a couple of law firms to build out a bigger version of our training program, so that we can reach more officers. As a part of that, reach the media in those communities, reach the LGBT and other minority community activists in those places. That’s going to require us to grow a little bit, probably by both adding members to our team and building a team of volunteers around the country, who can pick up some of this work in different regions.

We’re continuing to expand our support for artistic works. I have a retired high school English teacher on my team who is building curriculum and classroom materials for teachers to use. We’ve seen that The Laramie Project has largely been performed by high school and college theatre classes and programs. In the last few years, more and more teachers have been bringing it into the classroom. We’re trying to pull our lens back a little bit and bring in some broader perspectives around The Laramie Project in particular, but also the documentary film and the oratorio and Leslea’s poetry, so that it can be useful to teachers in a broader range of subject matter.

The Shepards are booked well into 2019 for presentations to community groups, college students, high schools. They’re flying all over the country, responding to people’s interest in the 20th anniversary. We’re active in a variety of programatic coalitions with the Anti-Defamation League and HRC and other major civil rights organizations, to see if we can get improved legislation moving, now that there’s bipartisan leadership in Congress. We think there may be an opportunity for LGBT-inclusive legislation to get a fairer hearing than it’s had in recent years.

All of the fundraising and staffing and administrative work that comes with a growing organization is only going to be a heavier lift next year. We’re trying to metaphorically go to the gym more often, build our administrative and institutional elements here so we can take on a larger workload. We had a very positive year in terms of fundraising and new volunteers signing up. All of those indicators are on an upward trend, which is great to see.

The Foundation works to erase all hate.

What else would you want to tell people about the Matthew Shepard Foundation?
I always close by telling people we’re an organization of eight folks and some volunteers. Our work will only truly be effective if people join us in doing it. We always try to focus our work on inspiring individuals to be a part of this in their daily lives. To confront hatred when they run into it. To live their lives by values that help those around them. To embrace diversity and not reject it. To try to encourage teachers and other adult mentors to reach out to LGBTQ young poeople in their lives.

If we could get millions of people to get up every morning wanting to do that, and doing that in small, daily ways, a huge amount of our work would be accomplished. In fact, the only way that our work will ultimately succeed is if millions of people choose to do it, individually and in tandem with each other. That would be enough to put us out of business, and society would be stronger, and people would be healthier and have more justice.

We just really are so grateful for and humbled by the fact, that 20 years later, people still continue to consider Matt’s story important, and are inspired by it to try and make the world a better place.


To learn more about the Matthew Shepard Foundation and their activism, visit them online at matthewshepard.org. Follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

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