Judy and Dennis Shepard have a powerful story to share, and through their partnership with the U.S. Department of State, they are sharing that story around the world. As part of this ongoing relationship, the Shepards traveled on behalf of the U.S. Speaker Program to Trinidad and Tobago, in April, to promote a message of understanding, compassion, and acceptance for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Over the course of three days, they encouraged human rights advocates, brainstormed with educators, listened to parents, and urged government officials to help lead the way.
The Shepards' story is rooted in their love for their son, Matthew. They lost 21-year-old Matthew in 1998 to a brutal murder motivated by anti-gay hate in Laramie, Wyoming. His death continues to spark discussions on human rights around the world. In the United States, Matthew’s story resulted in an important legislative achievement: After years of Judy Shepard’s advocacy, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law in 2009.
Judy and Dennis Shepard say they go where they are invited. Doing so sometimes means that they meet people who are unfamiliar with their message. This often opens the door for constructive and life-changing conversations. During their meetings in Trinidad, some audience members were challenged by the idea of accepting their gay or lesbian family members, neighbors, and colleagues. Others told stories of friends who experienced bullying and violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Most everyone agreed: this is not something you talk about publicly -- and yet, with the Shepards in the room, they did.
But things are changing. People in Trinidad are confronting the discriminatory attitudes that stigmatize members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. They are questioning discriminatory (albeit largely unenforced) laws. Meeting the Shepards galvanized local human rights advocates, who rallied behind their message and drew inspiration from Judy’s legislative advocacy. Academics, religious leaders, and government officials heard the Shepards’ story, and committed themselves to advancing the dialogue about universal human rights.
On the Shepards’ final night in Trinidad, the Embassy sponsored a screening of The Laramie Project, a film that tells the story of the aftermath of Matthew’s murder. Speaking after the film, Judy and Dennis moved their listeners to tears as they shared their story with an audience that included Trinidad’s Chief Justice, Attorney General, and Speaker of the House. As these decision-makers consider their country’s future, they have their moving encounter with the Shepards’ message to help inform their direction.
And as Trinidad’s human rights advocates press for progress, they have the Shepards’ visit to remind them that they have an ally in the United States.
About the Author: Kristen Farrell recently completed a tour as a political officer at U.S. Embassy Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. Learn more about U.S. government engagement on international human rights at www.HumanRights.gov, or follow the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at Facebook.com/stateDRL or @State_DRL on Twitter.