Three years ago today, I did something that I am still in awe of. It was my absolute honor to interview Judy Shepard for my old website, DIDS. The following is a repost from the original interview (nothing has been altered).
Welcome to Sit Down Sunday! Sit Down Sunday is a biweekly post including my interviews with skaters, actors, actresses, directors, writers, rock stars, and your mom.
This week has been pretty damn awesome. I was able to interview someone that I've looked to over the years as a beacon to keep strong even when things get really bad. This week, I interviewed Judy Shepard.
It's sad to say, but with all the focus on gay marriage rights/equality, the plight of those who are transgender and want equal rights sometimes gets a little lost. What steps is the Matthew Shepard Foundation taking to educate others on transgender people and fight to get them equal rights as well?
Our youth resources site, MatthewsPlace.com, is very important to our work to help educate about transgender issues. We have long offered a variety of trans voices within MatthewsPlace, including male-to-female and female-to-male youth bloggers. Our work in this area has been twofold. We are providing a space for trans individuals to share what they have learned with other people who are transgender and/or questioning their gender identity. We also serve as a platform by which we can help educate about gender identity issues. We have been very deliberate and direct in terms of cultivating transgender-focused content that serves to educate and allow trans people share their stories.
One exciting example of our work to cultivate an inclusive environment of trans individuals is the five-part series on transgender health issues that we worked with a youth blogger to help create. This informative series included mental health and explored the various physical aspects that are important to transgender individuals, including hormone therapy, surgeries, and coming out to your doctor. You can find the article here.
An example of a way we have been a platform to spread the message about trans issues is a touching story we recently featured on MatthewsPlace.com by the mother of a MTF child, who is now in her teens. That article is here.
We know moving ahead that trans* issues are sure to be increasingly important. We are continuing to use our various social media platforms to help educate about the legal issues currently important to those with gender identity issues, such the ballot measure aimed at stripping away a California law that mandates schools to provide fair accommodations for transgender students.
Do you find that it's easier to spread the word about 'the cause' with a good or eager response than it was back when you first started to educate others?
At the beginning, our work was very much about what our experience as a family was like and how that might open the eyes of heterosexual people who didn't really see that LGBT rights, discrimination and hate crimes could actually affect their lives, and how and why that might happen to them like it did to us. Now it's a lot more about taking LGBT people and their allies who totally understand the problem, and sympathize, but getting them to take the next step into being active in the solution. More and more now, it's also about making sure they understand that despite recent progress, we are still a long way from the end of the struggle.
What do you think MatthewsPlace on the foundation website has helped to do for LGBTQ youth? How do you think it differs from other websites that have the same general idea?
The goal of MatthewsPlace.com has always been to be a resource site for youth. The site offers a vast collection with diverse viewpoints aimed at helping LGBTQ youth create happy lives and make healthy choices. We offer a diverse variety of youth bloggers, interviews, and a growing collection of personal stories. Of course you can find other websites that are connecting LGBTQ youth, but we believe that adding to the array of options and opportunities for youth to find supportive voices is a positive step in the right direction. Our bloggers work with a professional editor to generate interesting content. Additionally, this provides a good learning opportunity and hands-on experience for the youth. For some, it's their first paying job. We work with the youth to meet deadlines and develop positive working relationships. MatthewsPlace started as an online village that aimed to serve as a hub for youth in rural locations. We still offer this important viewpoint, including the 17-year-old gay blogger in Tipton, Iowa (home to fewer than 3,000 residents). However, the site has continued to grow and will continue to evolve all with the direct intention of creating a safe space and helping youth cultivate happy, healthy lives.
Is there a coming out story that you've been told that stands out to you the most?
I have heard so many coming out stories from young people, usually after I give a speech on a college campus. A few that come to mind were similar, where the young person struggled and struggled for the courage to come out to his or her parents, and then the parents were kind of like, “Sweetheart, we know. Why did you wait so long?” Those touch my heart because that’s more or less how it went when Matt came out to Dennis and me. It certainly isn’t always like that, and far too many of those situations are still very fraught and even dangerous for the young person. Those are heartbreaking. But I feel like I hear a little bit fewer of those every year and a lot more of the positive ones.
What do you think Matthew would say or think about all that you've done since his death?
Our family’s thinking in starting the foundation was that we wanted to honor Matt in a way that fit with his beliefs, his dreams and his aspirations. We knew he was very political, very interested in human rights, and in diplomacy, so we thought that an organization that advanced the idea of equal rights and equal dignity for all people, no matter what makes them different, would have been the kind of work he might have dedicated his own career to. So we hope he would find it a fitting legacy to be carried out in his name.
Can you tell us a little bit about the Bear to Make a Difference Gala that was on October 12th, and about who was being honored at the Gala?
We hold the gala every year in Denver around the anniversary of Matt’s death. Hundreds of people attend, and they help us raise funds for our outreach and resources programs through their donations, and by bidding on teddy bears signed by, and sometimes dressed up to look like, celebrities, political leaders, and prominent activists. We also give awards to people who were especially helpful to LGBT equality that year or over their careers. We were very grateful for the opportunity to award George Takei this year for his civil rights activism, and young Iowa blogger Jacob Stallman for his anti-bullying campaign in his hometown. The best part of the event is that supporters of the foundation from all over the country get a chance to meet each other and share in some inspiration as they go back home to spread the message for the rest of the year.
Where can people go to/who can they contact if they'd like to volunteer or help out with the foundation or at some of the events?
Please visit Matthew Shepard Foundation and you can select from a variety of topics. Those messages go directly to the staff members who work on the type of issue or question you choose and we will be happy to work with you.
Do you have different sectors to your foundation in place at colleges (i.e., such as the Trevor Project has at colleges to spread the word within their campus/community)? If not, is it something you would consider doing?
Our organization is actually quite small, so we do not have a “chapter” structure. But we work with a variety of national groups on specific issues and campaigns as well as local LGBT centers, campus and high-school GSAs and similar organizations, wherever we can be helpful. Our supporters are all over the country and the world and we let them know whenever we can if they can participate directly in a local campaign or issue with a partner group.
Do you feel like incidents like the one that happened recently at Ole Miss are ever going to stop in our society? What do you feel should be done to curb this kind of behavior?
Unfortunately I think it’s very unlikely that incidents like the anti-gay heckling of The Laramie Project performance at Ole Miss, or the many hate crimes against LGBT people, or those perceived as LGBT, will ever stop completely. It’s been 150 years since the end of slavery and yet racism persists in every part of the country, despite continuing and encouraging progress. The progress is the important thing: we need to keep moving forward, especially at those times when advocates for equality are feeling discouraged. Any massive change in behavior comes down to many, many individual changes in behavior, so each of us needs to be the best, most open and accepting person we can be, and encourage those around us to do the same. Hatred will stop when individuals stop learning to hate those different from themselves, and stop putting up with hatred from others in their lives and from our social and political leaders.
It was more than an honor to interview you, Judy. I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me.