Hundreds turn out at College of Charleston to support mother of gay student who was killed

Hundreds of College of Charleston students packed the sidewalk along George Street Monday evening in opposition to the possible presence of anti-gay protestors. Judy Shepard, the mother of a young man whose murder inspired federal legislatation against gay hate crimes, spoke at the College of Charleston. Wade Spees/Staff October 21, 2013

Hundreds of College of Charleston students held up signs, cheered and chanted Monday night to show their support for a guest urging equal treatment of gays and lesbians.

The guest was Judy Shepard, Matthew Shepard’s mother. Her 21-year-old son was brutally murdered in Wyoming in 1998 in what was labeled an anti-gay hate crime. His death inspired the federal hate-crime prevention act of 2009, according to the website in his name.

Several hundred students packed the sidewalks outside the Stern Student Center, spilling out onto George Street. Messages had gone out on Facebook for students to show up to counter an anti-gay rally outside the student center. Westboro Baptist Church — the group from Topeka, Kansas, that holds up signs saying “God hates fags” all over the country — sent out a tweet that they planned to protest the talk at the college. As it turned out, nobody from Westboro showed up. Students carried out their counter rally anyway, holding up signs saying “Not @ C of C!” and “God Loves All” and chanting “I love gays.”

A few minutes before the talk was to start at 7 p.m., scores of students started climbing the stairs to the ballroom. A city fire marshal ordered the doors closed when 400 people had filled all the chairs and wall space. Long lines of people waiting on the stairs were turned away.

Judy Shepard, a high school social studies teacher, speaks around the country urging equal treatment for gays, lesbians, minorities and anybody else who is different.

“You are who you are,” she said several times during her presentation. “You love who you love. And that’s just the way it is.”

Her son, Matthew, was killed by two men who drove him to a remote area, tied him to a split-rail fence and severely assaulted him with the butt of a pistol. A bicyclist found him the next day, and he died a few days later.

His parents set up a foundation in his name to “replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance.”

Progress has been made since Shepard’s death, but there’s still a long way to go, Judy Shepard said. For example, in 30 states a teacher can still fired for no other reason than being gay or lesbian, she said.

“In a civilized nation we treat all our citizens with dignity and respect,” she said. “We’re just not there yet.”

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553 or follow him on twitter @dmunday.