Armstrong reflects on his interview with Judy Shepard in 2010

I had the unique opportunity to interview Judy Shepard in February 2010 while I was serving as editor-in-chief ofThe All State student newspaper at Austin Peay State University.

She was invited to campus to speak at our annual Unity Celebration and talk about equal rights. For me, that night is something I will never forget.

The night before I read “The Meaning of Matthew” to make sure I would ask appropriate and relevant questions. Now I’m not one to read for the fun of it, which is funny with me being managing editor of O&AN. But I will say that this book helped and brought me comfort.

I had recently come out to myself that past November and to close friends. As I was reading through the book, I kept feeling as if Matthew and I were similar, and that I could relate to him.

I never will forget when I hit pages 132 and 133 I started to cry so hard. That was the part in the book where Matthew died. It is still bookmarked to this day.

This book is very special to me because I kept the program, dinner ticket, reserved seat ticket and the questions I asked Judy. And she also signed it.

When Judy walked into the room I conducted the interview in, she had a red jacket on with black pants. But what I will never forget was that she was wearing the button I created for the event. Student Affairs asked me to design it and it was given it to everyone that attended the event, and even placed it on the event program.

While I was interviewing her, I never broke eye contact. I was always told to never stare at people as a child so it’s hard for me to look at people in the eyes when I talk to them. But with her, I had no problem doing so.

Judy had such a comforting aura about her when she answered my questions. It was as if she knew I was just starting to deal with my sexuality and being around her made me feel that it was OK to be gay.

The infamous Westboro Baptist Church had APSU down on their picket list that night. We broke news about it and campus freaked out, but in a good way. Student groups made sure the Free Speech Zone was reserved all day so they could not step foot on campus. The only place they could go was the sidewalk in front of campus or across the street. They actually called campus police a couple of hours before the event and canceled the picket, which was nice of them.

As I was walking to hear her speak in one of the campus buildings, I heard loud noises coming from the front of campus. There were around 100 to 150 students, faculty, staff, Clarksvillians and people from all over the state there in support of Judy being there and equal rights — and to protest Westboro if they showed up.

This night was one of the most memorable moments so far in my life. I’m a firm believer in things happening for a reason, and the events of that night helped me get through one of the scariest points of my life.

I think if anyone ever reads “The Meaning of Matthew,” you to will see a little bit of yourself in him. Matthew Shepard may be gone, but his life will continue to live on through the works of his family and the way of equality spreading through out the country.

Matthew Wayne Shepard: Born Dec. 1, 1976 — Died Oct. 12, 1998

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