With determination and conviction, Judy Shepard stood before a packed auditorium to talk about the hate that lead to her son's death and the acceptance that could have saved him.
“We need more acceptance now,” Shepard remarked. “We need to move away from tolerance and towards acceptance because you don’t tolerate people, you accept them. You tolerate a bad hair day.”
Shepard, whose 21-year-old son was brutally murdered in a hate crime because of his sexual orientation, came to Pelham to address faculty, residents and students in grade 8 through 12. The lecture was organized in conjunction with the Ingalls Seminar, a program established in the 1980s.
“Pelham wants students to be comfortable with who they are and how they are maturing,” said PMHS history teacher Frank Oregi, Ingalls Committee member.
Wednesday's program, “From Tolerance to Acceptance – What Do We Do With Our Differences?” opened with a video about Shepard’s son, Matthew, 21, and James Byrd Jr., 49, both vibrant and full of life – and both victims of hate crimes.
Shepard spoke about hate, fear, compassion, education, sexual orientation and what we can do - as individuals and as a community - to make this world a more accepting place for everyone.
After introducing herself with a bit of humor, Shepard read the victim impact statement she gave at the trial of the two men who killed her son.
“He was my son, my first-born, and more – he was my friend,” she said with composure. “We kissed his face, stroked his arms, held his hands, we talked to him in the hospital.”
She paused. “How could anyone feel so threatened by this tender, sweet child that they could do this to him?” she asked.
Telling the audience about the hole in her heart, Shepard said, “I know Matt would be terribly disappointed if I gave up. He would be disappointed in all of us if we gave up”
Shepard was referring specifically to the struggle for equality for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities.
“We established the Matthew Shepard Foundation and need to educate, educate, educate,” she said. “I tell my story, tell Matt’s story, and how you can help is by telling your story.”
Shepard said people need to move away from stereotypes and said communities can help with grassroots, social acceptance initiatives.
“You are who you are, you love who you love, and at the end of the day, and that’s just the way it is,” she said.
In response to an audience question about social networking and Facebook, Shepard called it “a total waste of time and super-dangerous. It opens the door to cyber bullying.”
Referring to the opening video, Shepard said she included Byrd “to show it’s not about being gay, it’s about hating those who are different from us.”
With regard to the laws that prevent same-sex couples from marrying, she commented, “If promiscuity in the gay community is what you’re worrying about, then why are you denying them the one road to monogamy?”
Shepard concluded by telling the audience that “life should be lived to the fullest and in total honesty. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t be who you are, and show your world to your family and friends. Be an example to them.”