On Saturday (October 15th 2011), I had the pleasure of attending the “Bear to Make a Difference” annual fundraising event for the Matthew Shepard Foundation held in Denver, Colorado.
This year marked the tenth anniversary of the event and proved to be their highest attended event with over 650 attendees.
As part of the fundraiser, a silent auction was held prior to the dinner and featured teddy bears, dressed and decorated by various celebrities and usually accompanied by autographed photos of the celebrity. Included with the teddy bears, the auction offered a number of other items which had been donated to the Matthew Shepard Foundation. After dinner there was also a live auction for a handful of vacation packages as well as a “raise the paddle” donation auction.
Once the dinner was under way, the Foundation gave out awards to individuals for their ongoing support of LGBTQ issues. Making a Difference Award is the highest honor given, and this year’s recipient was Jennifer Beals, actress from ‘The L Word’. Jennifer gave a touching speech about how much she supports our community, especially after playing a lesbian on ‘The L Word’. Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard, also recognized a number of individuals who have been tireless in their dedication to LGBTQ causes.
John Berry, Director of the United States Office of Personnel Management, was the keynote speaker for the evening. Mr. Berry was appointed Director by President Obama in 2009. Upon his swearing in, Mr. Berry became the highest ranking openly gay public official in history. I had the honor of meeting him at a reception prior to the fundraiser. He is a very well spoken advocate for our community and was extremely influential in obtaining domestic partner benefits for all Federal Employees.
Other than being able to help support the Matthew Shepard Foundation, the highlight of the weekend was meeting and speaking with the Shepard family. Their ability to turn such a tragic event in their lives into something so beneficial is unparalleled. Though soft spoken and quiet in person, Judy Shepard has been one of the loudest for the anti-hate and bullying movement. Judy Shepard’s passion and voice was undoubtedly crucial for passage of the Matthew Shepard, James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which added perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability to the 1969 Federal Hate Crimes law.
Another treat was being introduced to Randi Driscoll (singer and songwriter), whom also performed at the “Experience the Devine” kickoff event for the fundraiser. Upon learning the story of Matthew Shepard, Randi wrote a song about the tragic event called ‘What Matters’. All proceeds from the sales of the single are donated to the Matthew Shepard Foundation. She has since made countless appearances to help support the Foundation.
Brett Dunckel is the founder of You Can Be Anything.
“The story of Matthew Shepard began on December 1, 1976 when he was born to Judy and Dennis Shepard in Casper, Wyoming. He went to public school in Casper until his junior year of high school when he moved with his family to Saudi Arabia. Matt had to finish his high school education at The American School in Switzerland because there were no American high schools in Saudi Arabia at the time. In both high schools, he was elected by his peers to be a peer counselor. He was easy to talk to, made friends easily and actively fought for the acceptance of all people. Matt had a great passion for equality. His experiences abroad fueled his love for travel and gave him the chance to make many new friends from around the world. Matt’s college career eventually took him back to Wyoming where he studied political science, foreign relations and languages at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.
“The horrific events that took place shortly after midnight on October 7, 1998 went against everything that Matt embodied. Two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, led him to a remote area east of Laramie, Wyoming. He was tied to a split-rail fence where the two men severely assaulted him. He was beaten and left to die in the cold of the night. Almost 18 hours later, he was found by a bicyclist who initially mistook him for a scarecrow. Matt died on October 12 at 12:53 a.m. at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado with his family by his side. His memorial service was attended by friends and family from around the world and garnered immense media attention that brought Matt’s story to the forefront of the fight against bigotry and hate. The life and death of Matthew Shepard changed the way we talk about, and deal with, hate in America. Since his death, Matt’s legacy has challenged and inspired millions of individuals to erase hate in all its forms. Although Matt’s life was short, his story continues to have a great impact on young and old alike. His legacy lives on in thousands of people like you who actively fight to replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance.”