The Meaning of Matthew

Title: The Meaning of Matthew : My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed
Author: Judy Shepard
Publisher: Hudson Street Press, New York
Year: 2009
Available: and

October 1998 is firmly etched in my mind. A few days before Canadian Thanksgiving, Matthew was kidnapped, beaten, tied to a fence, beaten more, and left for dead. Contrast the image of Matthew alone, in the cold with the image of Canadians preparing for quality family time on Thanksgiving. Matthew died from his injuries on Thanksgiving Monday. Somehow, October and Thanksgiving have never been quite the same since Matthew Shepard was murdered.

In the years since Matthew was murdered, many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans-identified people were murdered. For some reason, Matthew Shepard’s murder captured the world’s attention in a way the other murders did not. Just what grabbed the hearts of people around the world has been a subject of debate by those who watch hate crimes. For a very short man, Matthew Shepard cast a very long shadow. His shadow was well over a decade long, and reached around the world. He touched hearts, and changed minds. Matt’s brief life made a difference. The impact Matthew Shepard made can be seen in events that took place after The Meaning of Matthew was published. Congress passed a bill that extends hate-crimes protection to members of sexual minorities. The bill is named the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

Judy Shepard seemed to transform from a Wyoming mother into a very strong human rights activist. When Judy Shepard wrote a book about Matthew, the book instantly became a must read for this reviewer.

In many respects, The Meaning of Matthew is a just what one would expect. Readers hear the voice of a mother, as she relates stories about Matthew. The book starts with the late night phone call from the hospital informing the Shepards that Matthew was seriously injured. Judy Shepard shares family history, and stories of Matthew. We get a mother’s glimpses into Matthew as a child, as a high school student, and as a college student. The stories give us a few insights into who Matt was. Matthew’s last hours, the story of the brutal assault, and the arrest and trials of the killers are described.

Reading some details about Matthew’s murder, the trials, and some of the small acts of kindness that came from a grieving world community are very moving. Frequent tear-filled breaks were required when reading those passages.

The book then shifts from being a mother’s book about her son to being a book about a family coping with profound loss, and a book about political activism and social justice. What makes this book gripping is some of the same things that made Matthew Shepard a household name, and that caught the attention of the entire world in 1998. This book is more than the story of a young man who, even though he was mortally injured, managed to cling to life for days. This is the story of a family who, while laying a loved-one to rest, bravely faced incomprehensible levels of hate and anger, and rose above the painful loss, and the rage of homophobic people, to become very powerful spokespersons for good, for human rights. After reading the book, the real meaning of Matthew seems to be what people do in response to dreadful, hate crimes, such as the one that took Matthew Shepard’s life. The Shepards, Dennis, Judy, and Logan, responded by laboring for a better tomorrow, by struggling to promote life. Matthew, Dennis, Judy, and Logan were the catalysts for a number of queer rights activists. Some of those activists are young and dynamic. They will add many extra chapters to The Meaning of Matthew.