It’s been nearly two decades since their son was murdered, and Dennis and Judy Shepard are still working to turn their tragedy into a call for inclusion.
“We are all different. That’s the blessing,” Dennis Shepard told Hicksville High School students Thursday ahead of the school’s performance of “The Laramie Project,” a play based on the murder of the Shepards' son, Matthew.
On Oct. 6, 1998, Matthew, who was gay, was lured from a bar on the outskirts of the University of Wyoming in Laramie by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who police said pretended to be gay. Matthew, who was pistol-whipped and left to die tied to a fence, succumbed to his injuries on Oct. 12 after being hospitalized in a coma. Both McKinney and Henderson were sentenced to two consecutive terms of life in prison for the crime.
Matthew is the subject of the widely performed play “The Laramie Project,” which Hicksville High’s 50-member cast and crew are performing. On Thursday, Shepard’s parents spread their message of hope and encouraged the audience to embrace their differences.
“The difficulty about this whole thing was that these two young men decided that Matthew had no right to live because he was different… like those considered fringe,” Dennis Shepard said. “But we are all fringe to somebody. You should be respecting that and getting to know those people who are different.”
The nation’s current political climate was palpable during Thursday’s assembly. During the Q&A session, Hailey Myrthil, 16, a Hicksville High student, asked about the current presidential administration’s lack of recognition for National Pride Month.
Judy Shepard criticized President Donald Trump’s lack of support for the LGBTQ community, saying she, “is concerned for the safety of those who feel marginalized.” She added that she thinks there isn’t enough being done and that they are still working with the Department of Justice to make positive changes.
The play was developed using hundreds of interviews conducted by Manhattan’s Tectonic Theater Project, which first performed the play in 2002. It has since been performed in theaters around the world and translated into 10 different languages. The three-act play with 60 characters in short vignettes paints the picture of how this kind of crime affects a community.
Hicksville High teacher Caitlin Cassidy, who codirects the drama program, felt lucky that the Shepards could be at the school on opening day.
“It was a coincidence that they were going to be in New York,” said Cassidy. “We are honored they spoke.”
Junior Viren Fernandes, one of the performers, added, “Practicing for the show was one thing, but seeing and hearing the Shepards today really makes this more intense. It will change our performance and make it even more alive.”
Performances of “The Laramie Project” continue Saturday night at Hicksville High School beginning at 7 p.m. Tickets are available at the door.
For more information on the Matthew Shepard Foundation, visit www.matthewshepard.org