Many nonprofit organizations take on vital missions, but few are as challenging as the Matthew Shepard Foundation’s 21-year quest to help create a better, more tolerant world.
“It’s an audacious thing to try and end hate in a world of six billion people with a staff of eight,” said Jason Marsden, who led the Denver-based organization until last month.
Marsden took the helm of the organization in 2009, when the country was in the throes of the Great Recession and the decade-old MSF was deep in debt. It was started by Matthew’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard. Their son, a gay 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, was brutally murdered in Laramie by two local men in October 1998.
Shepard’s life story helped galvanize the worldwide fight for equal rights for the LGBTQ community. His death was covered by journalists around the globe, including Marsden, who was a Casper Star-Tribune reporter and a friend of Shepard.
Marsden wrote a moving column about Shepard’s life. He also outed himself as a gay man, which at the time had only been known by family and some close friends and co-workers. Soon he was being interviewed by national print and broadcast journalists and appearing on panels with Judy Shepard. He volunteered at the fledgling foundation.
Marsden, a 1994 Harvard graduate who grew up in Sheridan, knows how difficult it is to be gay in Wyoming. “In high school I got called ‘fag’ plenty of times. I wasn’t out and I dated girls,” he recalled. “I didn’t conceive of myself being gay. Clearly enough other people did.” (Full disclosure: Marsden is married to WyoFile Operations Director Guy Padgett.)
The verbal abuse, he said, “sure sent a clear message to 14-year-old Jason: If there was ever any question of you being gay, you’re certainly not going to do anything about it or say anything about it.”
Thirty years after graduation, Marsden learned there were a number of gay or bisexual men at his high school. “So now I know that I wasn’t alone, and I also know that everybody else was feeling the same way about being in the closet,” he said.
“I didn’t come out [to my family] until I was 20,” Marsden added. “I think as is often the case, I was the last person to know.”
Marsden said the foundation had “a very tight, super-white-knuckle financial situation for a few years.” His first experience fundraising was as executive director of Wyoming Conservation Voters. It was a skill the MSF desperately needed.
After Sir Elton John performed a handful of benefit concerts, including one in Laramie in 2009, the foundation was able to put some money in the bank.
“We had been running month-to-month,” Marsden said. “There was a lot of dialing for dollars and belt tightening. Even a lot of our well-off donors were taking a beating financially, but they stepped up and dug deep.”
On a stable fiscal footing at last, the MSF launched some of its most ambitious projects. Staff members offer free training to police and prosecutors throughout the U.S. on the subject of hate crimes, including those based on race, religion and sexual orientation. The foundation also works closely with corporations on LGBTQ employee issues.
The foundation hosts “Matthew’s Place,” a website that features stories written by and for LGBTQ youth.
“There are Gay-Straight Alliances springing up in high schools all across Wyoming,” noted Marsden, who said it’s important for students to have support from teachers “so they don’t have to hide who they are every day when they go to school.”
Still, he said helping ease the psychological strain of bullied kids has been “a slow evolution.”
“I think if Wyoming really wanted to do something positive for its future generations in terms of keeping them engaged in the state and happy to be here, this is an area that deserves educators’ and policymakers’ attention,” Marsden said.
Marsden traveled with the Shepards to Europe and Mexico under the auspices of the State Department when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state.
“What I always observed is that their story is so powerful that it made people stop and reflect,” Marsden said. “I heard so many times, ‘If they can do this through their grief, why am I not doing something?’”
The MSF helps high school, college and community theaters all over the world produce “The Laramie Project,” a play written by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project that was also adapted into an HBO film. The New York City playwrights interviewed scores of people in Laramie after the hate crime and used their subjects’ words verbatim to describe how the city reacted to Shepard’s death. (More disclosure: I am a character in “The Laramie Project.”)
In separate interviews, both Marsden and Judy Shepard described the play’s themes as universal, because while Matthew was targeted by his killers due to his sexual orientation, the events could just as easily occur to someone based on hatred of a victim’s race or religion.
“As long as stage theater is a thing — and it’s got a 2,000-year track record — that play is going to be performed,” Marsden predicted. “Maybe someday it will be a period piece about how things used to be. Wouldn’t that be great?”
It would indeed. I asked Marsden what he thinks his friend would say about the attention his story has received worldwide since his murder.
“Matt was a very strong personality and had strong opinions,” he said. “I’d like to think that his response would be somewhere between ‘OMG’ and ‘hell, yeah!’ He really wanted to make the world better.”
Marsden said many people who have participated in the foundation’s events have gone on to become teachers and actors. “I certainly hope that Matt would feel pride in that, because it’s deserved,” Marsden said. “He lived a very vivid and inspired life, and I hope he would feel some vindication and gratitude that it really did make a difference.”
Marsden’s own contribution to making people more aware of LGBTQ issues and the fight for equal rights can’t be overstated. He’s helped change lives and earned the admiration of his former co-workers.
“I’ll miss working with someone who can tell a story about Millard Fillmore one minute and then pivot to Spongebob,” said Cynthia Deitle, MSF’s director of civil rights reform. “Jason’s genius, his sense of humor, and his uncanny ability to memorize a budget spreadsheet cannot be replicated.”
Judy Shepard said the average memorial foundation lasts five years, but the MSF is over two decades old and has a full head of steam.
“Jason was a perfect fit for us,” said Judy Shepard. “He dug us out of a financial hole, and he knew Matt and could tell his story. He’s a brilliant writer and a loquacious storyteller.”
Marsden doesn’t know what he will do next, but he wants to keep working for a nonprofit organization
“I’d like to take on a new set of issues and educate myself about community needs, and maybe just kind of pull the lens in a little closer to outcomes for people,” he said. “This job taught me everything I ever needed to know about work that matters. It’s been a gift.”