The couple say they never knew their gay son, whose brutal murder would spur hate-crime laws, was afraid to come out to them

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
Updated February 04, 2015 05:45 PM
Courtesy the Matthew Shepard Foundation

Judy and Dennis Shepard long believed they knew their son, Matthew, better than anyone – certainly better than the millions who saw him as a gay-rights icon and his brutal 1998 murder as a crystallizing moment in the crusade for equality, if not acceptance.

And, at times, they knew almost more than they could bear about Matthew and the horror he suffered the night he was savagely beaten and left tied to a prairie fence in Laramie, Wyoming. “It was brutal,” Dennis remembers even now.

But it wasn’t until after Matthew’s high-school friend, filmmaker Michele Josue, interviewed his closest friends for her new documentary, Matt Shepard Is A Friend of Mine, opening Friday, that the Shepards learned their son agonized over coming out to them, which he finally did as a college freshman.

In the film, which will also make its broadcast premiere later this year on LogoTV, Matthew’s friend, Walt Boulden, reveals that the young man once confided that he was afraid to come out, telling Boulden, “My family would reject me.”

“I was pretty shocked that Matt was hesitant about letting us know,” Dennis tells PEOPLE. “It was heartrending to hear that.” Adds Judy: “We always thought he just came out when he was ready.”

Josue made the film – and the Shepards helped, giving her access to boxes of Matthew’s packed-away old letters, journals, postcards and home movies – because all three feared Matthew becoming an emblem known only for how he died.

“We want to reconnect people with the Matt Shepard who lived – with all his flaws and struggling to come to terms with who he was,” says Josue. “Maybe then we’ll open people’s eyes to see that, just as Matt is a human being, [transgender teen] Leelah Alcorn is, too, and all the other Matt Shepards out there.”

Since Matthew’s murder, his parents have channeled their grief into fighting for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights through The Matthew Shepard Foundation and providing support to LGBT youth through Matthew’s Place. One major accomplishment: A 2009 law signed by President Obama extending hate-crime status to acts of violence based on sexual orientation.

For Judy and Dennis, Josue’s award-winning directorial debut is bittersweet.

“I resisted watching it for forever,” admits Judy. “The hardest part, really, is seeing Matt up there again and when the film is over, he’s gone.”

For more of PEOPLE’s interview with Judy and Dennis Shepard, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday