by Jennie Gritton
Chattanooga News Writer
CHATTANOOGA – Judy Shepard urged community members to vote in her keynote speech to the 2005 Chattanooga Gayla audience. Shepard is the mother of Matthew Shepard whose 1998 Laramie, Wyoming, murder shocked the nation.
Mrs. Shepard did speak about her son, and the impact that the tragedy had on her and her family. However, she did not focus the entire speech on her son. Instead, she selflessly spoke directly to the audience of five simple steps to follow in order to change our society. The first three steps are simply register to vote, become an educated voter, and, finally, vote. These steps seem easy enough, but unfortunately only a fraction of the GLBT population actually turned out to vote in the 2004 presidential election.
She stressed in the fourth step that voting is not enough. Everyone must contact their elected officials to not only to inform how their constituents feel about the important timely issues, but also to follow up on previous issues.
“The fifth and most important step”, Mrs. Shepard strongly added, “is to come ‘out’ and talk to others.” She emphasized that education is key to combating hate and ignorance, and the only way to educate society is to communicate from a position of honesty and strength.
Soon after Matthew’s death, his parents set up the Matthew Shepard Foundation. The organization’s mission is to support diversity programs in education and to help youth organizations establish environments where young people can feel safe and be themselves. The goal is to replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance by offering milieu in which greater understanding through education. Shepard point out that fear is the root of most hate and people fear what they do not understand.
Her point was that if the GLBT community is more open to communication with the greater community, education will occur over time, leading to better understanding and, in turn, eliminate hate.
Her message was positive and powerful.
A loud murmur could be heard among the crowd as they discussed the impact of Shepard’s message. Her moving speech was both memorable and uplifting.
“Judy Shepard did a beautiful job inspiring us. Now it is our turn to turn her ideas into concrete actions!” commented Nicole Bellenfant, Vice President of Community Affairs for Chattanooga Cares.
This year’s event is the third annual Gayla dinner. Each year the event has grown in attendance. This year’s event saw a packed house with standing room only to hear Judy Shepard speak. Better attendance not only brings the GLBT community together but also means more funding for CARES vital programs and services.
Fundraisers such as the Strides of March, Cut Up For Life, and the annual Gayla account for a quarter of the organization’s funding. In recent months, budget restrictions on grants have forced the Chattanooga based organization to cut over 30% of their staff including 50% of their education staff. These fundraisers are vital to maintaining programs such as educational workshops and client services.
Jennie Gritton will be leaving Tennessee to pursue a graduate degree. If you have comments or questions regarding this article, please direct them to Beth Maples-Bays at [email protected].