MARIA HINOJOSA: Hello, everyone. This week we're speaking to Judy Shepard. She's the mom of Matthew Shepard, a college student who was brutally murdered in Wyoming in 1998 just because he was gay. We're speaking to Judy Shepard as the Senate is set to vote on the Matthew Shepard Act, which would expand federal hate crime categories to include violent attacks against gay people. Welcome to our podcast, Judy.
JUDY SHEPHARD: Thank you very much. It's my pleasure to be here.
HINOJOSA: So Judy, since Matthew was killed in 1998, after this horrific crime, he was beaten, he was tied to a fence, he was left for dead in the cold, since then, you have fought tirelessly to broaden hate crimes protections. At the moment, hate crimes—legislation covers race, religion, color, national origin. So tell our listeners, why do you think it's so important to broaden that definition of what constitutes a hate crime?
SHEPARD: It's well known that—crimes committed because of sexual orientation—rank third, even though they're not—fully reported—across the nation. So I just think it's important that the—the federal government have the ability to help out if they can. For instance, this is an example.
In 1998, James Bird Jr was also murdered in Texas just because he was an African-American. The federal government was actually able to step in with assistance—monetary assistance, as well as personnel, to help investigate and prosecute the three men who murdered him. In Wyoming, because there was no federal hate crime to protect sexual orientation, Albany County and the city of Laramie actually had to furlough five employees because they could get no monetary assistance.
HINOJOSA: So right now the House has already passed the bill. And the Senate is—is set to vote on it shortly. But President Bush is expected to veto the bill. The White House has said that state and local criminal laws already cover the new crimes that are defined under the bill. So—the—basically—the President is saying this kind of legislation just isn't necessary. So what do you say to that?
SHEPARD: It's very disheartening when the leader of our nation goes on national T.V. and says that gay people aren't—aren't deserving of every—every equality that everyone else is. I'm very disappointed that they don't see the difference, if nothing else than the message that it sends, that we need to protect—all of our citizens. Everyone is a race. Everyone is a sexual orientation. It just gives permission for people to continue to harass sexual orientation until we mark them as protected.
HINOJOSA: So when you hear conservatives who say this bill will threaten the right of some people to express their moral opposition to homosexuality, do you think that they have a point?
SHEPARD: No. It's—it's irrelevant. That point is irrelevant, because they very carefully state in the bill it has nothing to do with what they say. This is about the way they act. This is about actions that they take, not what they say.
HINOJOSA: So in the last election cycle, Judy Shepard, you actually—helped in a—in a huge get-out-the-vote campaign. So what are you thinking about these upcoming elections?
SHEPARD: There are a lot of things we need to address, including hate crime. And I'm very disappointed and disillusioned that none of our candidates will step forward and take a stand on gay issues. I know Dennis Kucinich does. No one else seems to have the chutzpa to really, you know, take a stand. And they need to.
HINOJOSA: So when you—when you see these candidates, and they're not taking a stand on gay issues, what is the message, do you think, that Americans get when they see this happening?
SHEPARD: Well, that gay people don't matter. That it doesn't matter that they don't get—equal protection under the law. It doesn't matter that they don't get tax benefits because they're not married. Well duh, they can't marry. It's like no one really cares that they're not equal to everybody else. Well, the America I grew up believing in says everybody is equal under the law. The gay community is not.
HINOJOSA: So what do you—
SHEPARD: Is not.
JUDY SHEPHARD: And—and the Republican debate when they say—how do you feel about don't-ask-don't-tell, not one of them said anything. It's like hello. (CHUCKLE) You—you're saying that that just isn't—that just doesn't matter and you're not gonna take a stand. Well, that's unacceptable.
HINOJOSA: So Vice President Cheney, from Wyoming, lesbian daughter who gave birth, where does vice president Cheney come down on this? And what would you say to him?
SHEPARD: Well—(CHUCKLE) oh, I'd say a lot of things, actually. (LAUGHTER) One of them is I'm very disappointed in him—as a parent. And—and—Lynn, as well, his wife. But I—I would have to say I'm equally disappointed in Mary.
She had the opportunity to really make a difference. And she chose not to. Now I'm not in her position in life. I'm not the daughter of the vice president of the United States. But she was an out, vocal lesbian before the campaigns. And she just disappeared.
And she had an opportunity to make a difference, as did Mr. and Mrs. Cheney. And they just didn't. They actually, in my opinion, made things worse.
SHEPARD: Because they wouldn't talk about it. They just wouldn't talk about it. And they seemed so insulted and offended when anyone would bring it up. You know, even though their—their daughter was out, and has a partner, and—and they were—seemed to be fine with it up until then. But if any—anybody ever talked about it, they just got so irate about it. This sent the message that they were just embarrassed, or even ashamed.
HINOJOSA: I wanted to ask you about—something that happened as a result of a hate crime. In early July, a young man named—David Richardson, Mexico-American young man—committed suicide. He jumped off of a—a cruise that he and his family were taking. A year ago, more or less, he was assaulted at a party and beaten unconscious, sodomized with a plastic pole from a patio umbrella that had been soaked in chlorine bleach.
They were shouting, "White power." He actually survived, was hospitalized for three months, endured 20 to 30 operations, survived, made it out, testified for a hate crimes bill. And then, in early July, he committed suicide. When you hear that kind of story, Judy Shepard, what do you think about, you know—the—this sense of—of hate that's out there that is making its way into our small towns and cities more and more?
SHEPARD: Well, that certainly is tragic. That's—that's horrible. Violence among certain—aspects of our society is certainly on the rise. And the degree of violence is unbelievable. It starts with bullying, you know, in—I think, in small degrees. And then just if nobody ever does anything about it, it just grows and grows until it's some horrible act.
Bullies are—sort of cowardly themselves, and they require, you know, their peers around them to cheer them on. And—and I'm sure that's what was going on, it sounds like, if they were shouting epithets at him.
We have a very—sketchy policy against bullies, especially in our—school systems, that doesn't work. We don't address the problem of bullying itself. Bullies are bullies because they have issues. And if we don't address those issues, they will continue to be bullies throughout their life. And the violence they feel, the hate they feel, just increases.
But people who watch and do nothing about it, they need to be addressed, as well. There's no such thing as an innocent bystander. We—we fear for ourselves when we see someone else being attacked. But what—where is our moral compass if we allow that to happen?
HINOJOSA: Judy Shepard, thank you so much for joining us on "NOW on the News."
SHEPARD: Oh, thank you very much. It was truly my pleasure.
HINOJOSA: To find out more information about the Matthew Shepard Foundation, go to matthewshepard.org. You can also send us your comments at www.pbs.org/now. We're looking forward to your thoughts on the issue of broadening the category of hate crimes in this country to include gay people. This program was produced by Karin Kamp. And I'll talk to you again next time. I'm Maria Hinojosa for "NOW on the News."