AUGUSTA – The parents of Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming college student murdered in 1998, were the keynote speakers Thursday at a daylong conference on hate crimes at the University of Maine at Augusta.

Dennis and Judy Shepard described their own experiences in dealing with hate crimes, and ways to prevent them, to members of the law enforcement community and the greater public.

“The truth is, members of the gay community and their families want nothing more than to be treated like every other American,” Judy Shepard said. “Be happy and free; safe and secure; love and be loved in return.

“To commit some act of violence because you think they are somehow different or scary is, well it’s a misconception, and it’s wrong,” she added. “It’s morally wrong. It’s legally wrong. It’s just wrong.”

Dennis Shepard spoke after his wife and was blunt in describing their reaction to the murder. He warned the audience sitting in Jewett Auditorium that some of his speech would be disturbing.

He described his son’s torture and murder at the hands of two men who tied Shepard to a fence and left him to die, and he quoted from his court testimony about what it’s like to lose a son.

Dennis and Judy Shepard also talked about the 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr., a black man tortured and murdered by white supremacists four months before their son’s death.

The two murders helped lead to the 2009 expansion of the 1969 federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

Dennis Shepard said he partly blames law enforcement officials and attorneys for his son’s death.

He said the lack of prosecution or acknowledgment of those committing hate crimes against people who are gay or perceived to be gay created an “open season” for the hatred and attacks.

Shepard did, however, commend the law enforcement officials in Laramie, Wyo., who caught and prosecuted his son’s killers.

“For those in the legal profession, let me be very blunt,” he said. “This is the law. And you cannot pick and choose what laws you want to enforce, and you cannot pick and choose who you are going to protect. You took an oath to protect and serve everyone.”

The Shepards emphasized the need for people to tell their stories of being gay or knowing someone who is gay. They said it will help break down stereotypes and make the news of someone coming out as gay no longer news.

“Whether you remember anything else that either one of us said today, remember this,” Dennis Shepard said, as he concluded the speech. “Matthew was not our gay son. Matthew was our son who happened to be gay.”

Paul Koenig — 621-5663
pkoenig@mainetoday.com