Twenty Years Later: A Conversation about The Life and Legacy of Matthew Shepard


Photographs courtesy of Giang Nguyen

When one thinks about the topic of LGBTQ hate crimes, unless that person is well-versed in LGBTQ literature, legislation, and news, he or she may be unfamiliar with the name and tragic story of Matthew Shepard. This is one of the primary reasons why the “Twenty Years Later: A Conversation about The Life and Legacy of Matthew Shepard” discussion was initiated: to inform and educate UIS students, faculty, and staff about the death of Matthew Shepard, the implications and ripple effects of this hate crime, LGBTQ legislation, and other important, thought-provoking topics. This discussion was held on Thursday, Oct. 4. Members of student organizations and departments such as the Diversity Center, Residence Life, GSSS, and Student Affairs, were there to watch, listen, and offer their insight after playing the livestream of the panel on screen.

    The panel featured Judy Shepard, President of the Matthew Shepard Foundation and mother of Matthew Shepard, Kevin Kruger, President of NASPA – Student Affairs Educators International, Sue Rankin, Principal and CEO of Rankin & Associates Consulting, and Frank Sánchez, President of Rhode Island College. The panelists painted the portrait of Matthew Shepard as a white, gay, successful, family-oriented college student who was murdered due to his sexuality. At the time, this “galvanized” the United States at the perfect time in order to catalyze the appropriate amount of retribution in the justice system. Soon after she came out on her TV show, Ellen even addressed his death.

     The subject of hate crime legislation was pinpointed in detail during the panel as questions from the audience began to seep in. Some states, such as Arkansas, currently have no laws protecting individuals from hate crimes. However, it was also brought to attention that protesting groups of advocates have been able to, from the ground up, make legislative changes at the local level, even if federal and state governments will not oblige. The smallest changes can often make the biggest differences, because that is where many changes begin.

    The topic of utilizing institutions like universities as safe spaces (or, as it was put in the panel, “brave spaces”) for diverse groups of students, such as LGBTQ members and people of color, was also addressed in all its minutiae. Students with a sexuality or ethnicity that differ from the majority often feel lost, marginalized, alone, targeted, and maybe even confused as to where they “fit in” on a college campus. The number one reason, in fact, why students drop out of university is that they do not feel as if they belong there. In addition to issues of isolation and marginalization, mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety are far more prevalent in LGTBQ and QPOC (queer people of color) students.

    Making a college a welcoming environment for diverse students is imperative; this improvement can come from recruiting more diverse students, faculty, and staff, offering as many opportunities as possible to join organizations or attend events, and having mediated conversations about oppressed demographics of people both in and out of the classroom. Intersectionality is crucial, also, so that groups may band together and take a stand against students, faculty, staff members or authority figures that may be prejudiced. The 2016 election, they said, brought about a monumental turn for the worst as far as hate crimes are concerned: they increased exponentially. This was no coincidence.

     To wrap up the discussion, the panelists urged listeners to go register to vote if they had not already done so, educate themselves on legislators and prospective elected officials, find a way to get involved in the LGBTQ community, keep in mind that they have the power to make a difference in this democracy, and most of all, as stated by Shepard, remember that “[w]e may identify as different, but we’re all still people.”