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Matthew Shepard’s Parents Take LGBT Tolerance Message To Russia

Matthew Shepard, a gay man, was killed in 1998 in Wyoming. His parents have become LGBT activists and traveled to Russia.
Matthew Shepard, a gay man, was killed in 1998 in Wyoming. His parents have become LGBT activists and traveled to Russia.

Judy Shepard hopes Russians can take away one message from a new film about her gay son, Matthew Shepard, whose 1998 murder in Wyoming played a significant role in the passing of landmark U.S. legislation aimed in part at preventing hate crimes based on sexual orientation.

"You don't decide to be straight, you don't decide to be gay. It's who you are," Shepard told RFE/RL. "If people would understand that fact, then we could just move on and understand that we need to accept and love our kids, no matter what."

Shepard was speaking from Moscow, where she and her husband, Dennis, attended a November 25 screening of the documentary "Matt Shepard Is A Friend Of Mine," which retraces their son's life through interviews with his friends and family.

The event followed a November 24 showing in St. Petersburg as part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) film festival Side by Side, which has come under fire from Russian authorities over foreign funding it has received and has been targeted by militant anti-gay activists.

Both screenings happened largely without incident, though an apparent stink bomb was released prior to the screening at a St. Petersburg club. The stunt resembled earlier attempts to stymie LGBT events in the city, a festival organizer told RFE/RL.

"We both had anxiety that something would happen," Shepard said. "But actually I think we were more concerned about the people who came than we were about our own safety."

‘Something's Going To Happen'

The Shepards' trip to Russia comes amid a crackdown on Russia's embattled gay community.

President Vladimir Putin last year signed a law banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships," which Russian officials claim is aimed at protecting children and encouraging Russia's birthrate.

Western governments and rights activists have derided it as anti-gay and expressed alarm over violent guerrilla attacks against LGBT people in Russia that often go unpunished by authorities.

Judy Shepard said she was "thrilled" to bring the film to Russia together with director Michele Josue, but that up until the last moment she had expected problems.

"Right up until the end, we kept thinking: ‘Something's going to happen. We're really not going to be able to go,'" she said.

Her concerns were not unfounded.

Vitaly Milonov, a conservative St. Petersburg city legislator and one of Russia's most outspoken anti-gay voices, suggested publicly that he may attend the Side By Side festival to ensure that it adhered to the gay "propaganda" law.

Milonov also wrote to Side By Side organizers asking them to move the festival, which opened on November 20 and runs through November 29.

Josue, who was a friend of Matthew Shepard's, said she was "apprehensive" about taking her film to Russia but that "luckily it went very smoothly."

"It was such a meaningful experience for me, very humbling just to be in that crowd and see how Matt's story still translates to them," she told RFE/RL. "To see the universal appeal of Matt's story even 16 years later in a dive bar in St. Petersburg, it was quite a magical experience."

'Heartbreaking Tragedy'

Matthew Shepard was a 21-year-old university student when he was savagely beaten and tied to a fence by two assailants on October 6, 1998. He died of his injuries several days later.

Police testified that his killers, who were convicted and sentenced to life in prison, taunted Shepard during the beating for his sexual orientation, and that the attack happened after Shepard placed his hand on the leg of one of his killers.

Alternative motives for the murder have been explored, including in a 2013 book that suggests drugs, rather than Shepard's sexual orientation, may have played a central role in the killing. (Shepard's family has dismissed the book as an "attempt to rewrite the story of this hate crime" that is "based on untrustworthy sources.")

After a decade-long push by lawmakers and activists, U.S. President Barack Obama in 2009 signed a law bearing Matthew Shepard's name that defines a "hate crime" as one in which the victim is targeted for his or her "actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation."

Obama has called Matthew Shepard's death a "heartbreaking tragedy" and said that meeting Judy Shepard helped make him "passionate" about the issue of LGBT rights.

Universal Stories

Both Josue and Judy Shepard said they were touched by the opportunity to speak with Russians about the struggles faced by LGBT people and their families, including a meeting in St. Petersburg with a group of parents, primarily mothers, with LGBT children.

"They wanted to share their stories with us, which makes us feel quite honored that they would trust us," Shepard, who became an activist for gay rights after her son's death, told RFE/RL.

During their trip to Russia, Shepard said, she heard the same kinds of stories she hears "even in the most accepting places" for LGBT rights.

"Every story is very universal," she said. "There's three kinds. There's the kind where my parents love and accept me, there's the kind where my parents eventually came to love and accept me, and the kind where my parents will have nothing to do with me."

Shepard said she hopes the documentary encourages tolerance and unconditional love among families.

"We're hoping families who see the film -- LGBT youth or moms and dads or whatever -- would sort of gather together and unite, and maybe by just sheer popular opinion engage our allied friends to make a change," she said.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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