RAISING ELLE
Judy Shepard Asks: ‘Why is “Gay” an Insult in the First Place?’
by Martinique Davis
Mar 03, 2010 | 1350 views | 0 0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Last week Judy Shepard, mother of the 21-year-old murdered in Wyoming in 1998 because he was gay, spoke to a group of students at Telluride High School.

At the end of her talk, she shared a parable.

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, "My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith."

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather; "Which wolf wins?"

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”


As parents, we are responsible for nourishing our kids. Not just in the physical sense, but in the emotional realm too. What we feed them through our words and deeds (or don’t, for that matter,) is just as consequential to their development into healthy, happy adults as what goes onto their dinner plates.

It isn’t a radical revelation. Yet this responsibility – to feed your child the right sorts of things, so that they’ll blossom into good, caring, compassionate people – doesn’t always seem to take the top priority. At least not consciously. And it definitely doesn’t seem as easy as buying organic milk and fixing vegetables for dinner.

Shepard’s talk last week elicited both tears and laughter, as most sad stories do. Twelve years after losing her oldest son to an unfathomable hate crime, and more than a decade into her quest to Erase Hate through educational programs and speaking engagements coordinated under the nonprofit Matthew Shepard Foundation, Shepard must still fight tears when sharing her son’s story. It is, after all, a story no mother would want to tell.

How her son, who had always been a popular kid, interested in drama and political science, had told her he was gay at age 18. How she promised not to tell his father – but did anyway, knowing in her heart that, however hard it might be for him to understand, her husband would still never reject his son for his sexual orientation.

How late one autumn night they received the dreaded call: Their son was in critical condition in a hospital in Fort Collins.

What followed must have been unbearable. To find out that this hadn’t been an accident. That their son had been beaten and tied to a fence post and left for dead. That Matthew was fighting for his life in a hospital, beaten beyond recognition by two men he hardly knew, simply because he was different. Because he was gay.

A member of the audience told Shepard she was brave, for reliving this appalling chapter of her life over and over again, for the sake of education and spreading a message of acceptance and understanding.

“I’m not brave,” she said. “This is just what happens when you piss off somebody’s mom.”

What Shepard has accomplished for gay rights since her son’s murder is, by any standards, inspiring. Under the banner of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, this pissed-off mother has touched thousands with her message about replacing hate with understanding, compassion, and acceptance. The Foundation was instrumental in the recent passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama last October.

But perhaps more significant than any of that is what Judy Shepard has done to help to feed the Good wolves, currently waging battles within the chests of youth across America.

To Telluride’s eighth- through twelfth-grade students, Shepard explained: “Words are damaging. They can kill. So why do we continue to use those words? Why do we tell those jokes?”

She was telling a story of how she was in a mall, and overheard two girls who were trying on shoes. One asked the other what she thought of the shoes. “They’re gay,” the girl said, disapprovingly.

“Why do people feel it’s okay to use hate language?” she asked. “Why are those words socially acceptable? Why is ‘gay’ an insult in the first place?”

She was asking a group of under-18-year olds this question, but as a woman in my 30s, I felt my age group could have used this questioning as well.

“It starts with you,” she told the group. “Open your hearts. People are people, no matter who they love.”

As we saw last week, with our community rallying around Gay Ski Week and against threats from a gay hate group, Telluride is a “civil liberties safe zone.” We take pride in our acceptance of differences. Yet how many times have you heard “gay” used in our everyday vernacular, as a derogatory term?

The two men who killed Matthew Shepard had learned it was okay to hate. And while none of us believe we are teaching our children to hate, are we doing enough in teaching them to love and accept? Are we doing our part to make them understand that a gay person is just like any other person? A person who doesn’t deserve to be the brunt of jokes or the fodder for derogatory terms?

Are we doing enough to feed the Good in our kids?
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