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Matthew Shepard’s father on his mission to fight anti-trans hate: ‘It’s terrible right now’

Matthew Shepard Dennis Shepard

The horrific murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998 is widely regarded as one of the worst homophobic hate crimes in American history. As anti-trans hate intensifies in the US, his father Dennis is now teaming up with fathers of trans kids to share an important message.

“If you don’t study history, you will repeat it,” Dennis Shepard says firmly. “If you’re docile, you deserve what you get. And I can’t – I will not – allow myself to be docile.”

Nearly twenty-five years ago, Dennis Shepard’s life changed irrevocably when his son Matthew, a student at the University of Wyoming, was brutally attacked in what became the most notorious homophobic hate crime in US history.

Matthew never recovered from his injuries, and died in hospital six days later.

The fight which followed after, led by Dennis and his wife Judy, changed the course of history as the US reckoned with its longstanding history of LGBTQ+ violence and discrimination.

Their long and tireless road to justice was instrumental in the formation of the 2009 Hate Crimes Prevention Act, finally introducing federal-level protections for crimes based on sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability.

Talking exclusively to PinkNews on Zoom from Wyoming, the state which remains his home, Dennis is reflecting on the progress and regression seen in the US since that devastating day.

Matthew Shepard candlelit vigil.
Matthew Shepard’s murder prompted a reckoning with homophobia in the US. (Getty/Evan Agostini)

“Part of that legacy is that it helped make change,” he says, referencing the abolition of the archaic ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell‘ policy, which banned LGBTQ+ people from openly serving in the military, and the introduction of same-sex marriage.

“The legacy, as you see, is young people walking down the street holding hands – same-sex couples. It’s just great.”

The trajectory towards equal rights in the country looked so positive, he says, that he and Judy considered retiring from their work at the Matthew Shepard Foundation, the non-profit organisation they set up in Matthew’s memory with a mission to erase hate by replacing it with understanding, compassion and acceptance. Then along came the Trump administration.

“We lost our son Matt to the same kind of language and violence and discrimination”

“We’ve made steps forward since [1998], but now we’ve had to take three steps back,” says Dennis. “We have to unite and stop some of this ridiculous propaganda, and all the hate. It’s just terrible right now.”

Dennis is talking specifically about the legislative onslaught against trans people in the US. More than 20 states have passed or planned bills targeting trans lives, from banning gender-affirming healthcare for trans youth, to preventing trans people from partaking in school sports.

Alongside legislative discrimination, general vitriol against trans people has ascended to new heights. Dennis feels there is a chilling comparison to be made between what happened to Matthew 25 years ago, and the wave of hatred being directed towards trans people today.

Matthew Shepard
21-year-old Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered in 1998 (Matthewshepard.org)

“We lost our son Matt to the same kind of language and violence and discrimination. He was murdered, because he was gay. This thing is coming up again, because of the former administration we had,” Dennis says, noting that Trump’s tenure allowed “haters to come out in force”.

“What we went through then [is] what the parents of transgender kids are going through now, all the vitriol and the violence, and the proposal of laws – and the signing of laws, in many cases – against the transgender community.”

Fired up by the relentless injustice faced by trans people and their families, Dennis decided to partake in in The Dads, a powerful documentary by award-winning director, producer and writer Luchina Fisher. 

The film sees Dennis join five fathers, all of whom have transgender children, on a fishing trip in rural Oklahoma. The fathers, which include Wayne Maines, father of Supergirl star Nicole Maines, are all on the Human Rights Campaign’s Parents for Transgender Equality National Council.

The Dads is an opportunity for them to discuss the growing fears they have for the safety of their trans children.

“They’re scared to death for their kids,” Dennis says passionately. “They just don’t understand why these people are pushing against them so hard when they’re just normal families, and they’re going to do what’s best for their kids.”

Over the course of four days of filming, the men took time to reflect on how they learnt to navigate having a trans child, as well as understand America’s disturbing rise in anti-trans sentiment. For Dennis, though, the answer to the latter is crystal clear: the Republican Party is employing divisive, scaremongering tactics to win over voters.

“After what happened from 2016, actually 2015, during the [election] campaign, through the election of President Biden, we realised that we have to get back into the fight,” Dennis says of his and Judy’s work.

“The Republican party really had nothing to stand on… they have nothing that they can argue and fight over,” he adds, suggesting that as the US economy picks up and the job market expands, the right-wing have to rely upon sowing seeds of division to gain traction.

Scare tactics have led to misinformation, which have in turn sparked the proliferation of the age-old “groomer” slur against LGBTQ+ people. 

“What you see in the States with all this propaganda, that [trans parents are] butchering their kids, and they’re doing illegal operations… there’s a wide variety of medical experts that are involved in all this before they ever get to that point,” explains Dennis.

He hopes The Dads is a springboard for further conversations around how the families of trans people – particular fathers, who aren’t often acknowledged as being on the frontline in this battle – are simply supporting and loving their children.

Matthew loved theatre, politics and fishing, and spoke six languages. His life was so much more than what happened to him. These fathers want to show that their children, too, are more than the toxic narrative that surrounds them.

Dennis Shepard fishing in Oklahoma.
In The Dads, Dennis Shepard goes on his first fishing trip since Matthew died. (Supplied)

“They are fighting tooth and nail to protect their kids, and doing what they think is best for their kids, working in conjunction with what their kids want,” Dennis emphasises. 

The Shepards have spent 25 years in that fight, giving their lives to honour Matthew and ensure that all young LGBTQ+ folk who have come after him have the right to live peacefully.

Their battle for equal rights, as Dennis knows, has seen seismic wins. Yet he is equally aware that those rights can just as easily be quashed.

“You need to remind everybody that if you don’t stay active and aware of people trying to change these laws and these protections, you’re going to lose them,” he says solemnly.

“Because none of these are guaranteed. Anything can change.”

The Dads will screen at the ACT Human Rights Film Festival in Fort Collins, Colorado, and at Palm Beach International in April. More information can be found here.

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