"The Meaning of Matthew,” and My Meeting with his Mother Judy

by Michelle Evans, July 2010


Sometimes the world can be a very serendipitous place, as I found recently on a trip to visit my mother in Arizona. It has been many years since I have been able to see my mother, due to her reluctance at such a meeting after I came out to her as a transsexual. Several times over this period I’ve tried to set up meetings with her, but each was canceled for some reason or another. I was frustrated at this loss, however, finally a visit somehow materialized.


As my mother found out when I arrived, the sky did not implode, nor did her neighbors come by at night with pitchforks in hand! The trip was still very difficult, but in the end, a reconciliation appeared to be reached, and our relationship had made a turn for the better.


One of the things that happened during my visit, that made the whole thing serendipitous was that an article appeared in the local paper about a talk and book signing event, for a book I had not even known existed. This was “The Meaning of Matthew,” by Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard, who had been brutally beaten to death in Laramie, Wyoming, in October 1998 because he was gay. Having participated in a production of “The Laramie Project” in 2009, and being so familiar with the occurrence, and subsequent events, finally culminating in the passage of the Hate Crimes bill last year, I had never thought I would have the opportunity to meet the mother who had lived through it all.


Just the fact that this event with Judy Shepard was happening, also opened up more of a dialogue with my own mother, who had often tried to stay away from these types of discussions. So, even before the event, Judy Shepard was having an impact on my own life. My only regret was that my mother would not accompany me to Judy’s talk.


Arizona is not the sort of place where you expect a lot of support for anything to do with LGBT issues, so it was with great pleasure when I arrived at the book store to find that Judy was attracting a very large crowd. When she spoke, she did so in a very quiet voice to a hushed room. She talked of her son, and how he is often misunderstood because of being such a visible symbol of the gay rights movement. In fact, it was this misunderstanding that first led her to write the book. Judy wanted to put out a volume that would speak of her son Matt and his life, warts and all; not Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who was beaten and left to die, tied to a lonely fence on a cold Wyoming night.


Following Judy’s talk, and while driving home home after my visit with my mother, I knew exactly what I would do with “The Meaning of Matthew.” My wife and I share books, with me reading to her almost every night before we go to bed. This book was one we would definitely have to read together.


I knew it might be a hard read even before turning back the cover for the first time. Even then, I didn’t know just how hard it would be until I actually started reading to Cherie. It’s one thing to read something difficult to yourself, but doing so aloud can bring forth a lot of emotion that cannot be covered over. Throughout the read we were fascinated to hear of the life of Matt, and all he had accomplished in his young life. There were many moments of fun and joy, but also of the heartache of a person growing up gay and all the difficulties that entails.


One thing that stood out to me as I read, was that I saw some of the same types of behavior in Matt as I had experienced myself, although luckily not to the same degree as what he endured. Many LGBT young people find themselves on a sometimes self-destructive path. I know I went down that road, which almost ended my life on several occasions. I just did it in different ways than Matt did. He was a restless person, staying out late at bars, drinking to excess, not uncommon traits with someone who may be trying to avoid confrontation with themselves. One such incident led to his being raped and beaten, something from which Judy said he never truly recovered.


Society tends to frown on being anything out of the “norm.” When you run up against this, you often rebel, or self destruct. The very sad revelation of the story of Matt is that it appeared he was finally coming out of that cycle when this ultimate tragedy occurred. He may have finally been on the road to a fruitful and productive life, one where he wanted to work in international relations. What amazing things might he have accomplished if this had been allowed to happen? Instead, his life took such a tragic turn, but also because of this, the world finally stood up and took notice of what, for so long, had been brushed under the rug.


Because of what happened, the haters like Matt’s murderers McKinney and Henderson, Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, the Catholic Church and others, all showed their stripes against those of us who are LGBT. However, we also saw the good of the people who were outraged by the actions of the murders, the WBC, and the church. We saw the formation of the Action Angels and their ability to literally block hate from view, the formation of The Matthew Shepard Foundation by his family, the eventual passage of the Hate Crimes bill to give law enforcement a better understanding and more resources to combat those who would want us gone from this world.


Matthew Shepard paid the ultimate price, but because of the reactions of so many all around the world, and to the family he was a part of, and his mother in particular, maybe his death will eventually save countless more lives from being destroyed. We may literally be living in a world, not transformed, as Judy says in the subtitle to the book, but at least in transition.


As far as the book, I cannot recommend it more highly for anyone who wants to try and make sense of the senselessness that happened to Matt. However, you must be prepared to be caught up heavily in the emotions of all that transpired. So many times during my reading together with Cherie, I had to force myself slowly and deliberately through mountains of tears, nearly unable to speak; getting through a page and having to retire to clear my head before making another attempt to move through the passages describing what no person should ever have to endure.


I felt very privileged that I had the opportunity to meet Judy Shepard, and to understand her son much better than I ever had before. The book she has written is a powerful reminder that we still have so far to go, yet because of what happened, our world has taken a small step toward the day when such a horrendous and hateful crime will hopefully become a thing of ancient history.


“The Meaning of Matthew

My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed”

by Judy Shepard

Plume, 2010


The Matthew Shepard Foundation