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20 years later: Matthew Shepard's mom talks about progress, setbacks

Judy Shepard is spending several days this week in East Tennessee, speaking on college campuses and appearing at a fundraiser for the Matthew Shepard Foundation, named after her son, who was mortally beaten for being gay in 1998.

After years of progress, Judy Shepard is troubled by what she sees today on the national front.

Over the last year, she said, national leaders such as President Donald Trump have undermined support for diversity, social justice, equality.

From Shepard's perspective, President Barack Obama was "brilliant" in helping to advance awareness and support not just about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, but for all minorities.

"The current leadership has just unleashed this vitriol and hate directed at minorities -- people of color, Muslim, gay. Whatever isn't a straight white Christian man is being targeted now."

Shepard said she's "really scared" that all the progress that's been made to raise awareness and protect minorities such as LGBT members is fading.

Shepard is the mother of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who was fatally beaten because he was gay. He died in October 1998, days after the beating in Laramie, Wyo.

This is Matthew Shepard, age 21 in 1998. --- DATE TAKEN: Unavailable Mathew Shepard Foundation , Source: matassa@matthewshepard.com HO - handout ORG XMIT: ZX66915 (Via MerlinFTP Drop)

Judy Shepard is in Knoxville this week making several appearances -- on Tuesday at the Lincoln Memorial University Law School and on Wednesday at the University of Tennessee College of Law. She's part of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which seeks to raise awareness about diversity among other objectives.

A fundraiser is planned 6-8 p.m. Thursday at Hunter Valley Farm, 9133 Hunter Valley Lane. For more information go to www.matthewshepard.org and look under the Events category.

It's startling for many - Shepard included - to realize it's been nearly 20 years since her son died.

There's been a lot of progress, she said: Greater awareness, tolerance and appreciation for people in the LGBT community; realistic and respectful portrayals of people in the popular culture; and laws such as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, which expands the federal definition of hate crimes and gives federal authorities more flexibility to pursue such crimes.

But much still is lacking. For example, there are not widespread job protections for people who are gay. She said it's ironic that one of the few places where a person has federal protection based on sexual preference is in the military, where people once were forbidden to talk about their sexuality.

Despite the progress, pockets of deep-seeded hate still exist in the United States, she said.

UT has seen some scattered instances in recent years of harassment and vandalism on campus. Knoxville isn't alone in that regard, Shepard said, but younger people are moving in greater numbers beyond that mindset and bias.

She said she enjoys speaking to college-aged audiences at campuses such as LMU and UT.

"I think that's where changes comes form. For one thing, they have a better understanding of what being gay is like. They are of a mindset to change things. They're ready for change."

Young people today are more inclined to see that we're all basically the same, seeking the same things, she said.

"College students, high school students -- they're the ones that are going to set us on the right path finally."

Judy Shepard and her husband Dennis often appear together at events and speeches to talk about tolerance and the work of the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

Her son is with them, she said.

"We go on stage to speak and we always go without notes," she said. "Because we know Matt's going to be there. So, yes, we make plans around him. We got into this because this kind of work was his passion.

"We sort of feel like we're doing what he would be doing."