After her son Matthew was brutally murdered, Judy Shepard's relentless campaigning on behalf of tolerance led to a major shift in American law.
Byron Tau at Politico posted an interesting piece yesterday about how President Obama's views on gay rights evolved after "meeting people like Judy Shepard," mother of Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who was brutally murdered in Laramie, Wyoming, in October 1998 in a case that drew international attention. Looking to buttress his recent announcement supporting same-sex marriage, the president mentioned Shepard in a campaign video. The president said:
Meeting people like Judy Shepard, and not only hearing the heartbreaking tragedy of Matthew but also the strength and determination she brought to make sure that never happens to young people anywhere in the country again ... those stories made me passionate about the issue.
The president and the remarkable woman met in 2009, just as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was becoming law. That federal statute came about largely because Shepard and her husband, Dennis, relentlessly promoted its passage, year after year, often in the face of scornful Republican opposition. The legislation was first introduced in 2001. It died in the 107th, 108th, 109th, and 110th Congresses before finally passing through a Democrat-controlled House and Senate.
What President George W. Bush had consistently refused to do on gay rights Obama quickly did. So it's natural and unsurprising that the president today would specifically mention Judy Shepard. She has been a tireless tribune for tolerance -- a worthy symbol of what America has done well since 1998 to combat anti-gay prejudice and violence. Her story, that of a grieving parent trying to bring some good to something so bad, is a universal one; heartbreaking and ennobling at the same time.