Remembering Matthew Shepard in Today’s Climate of Hate

During a time that finds Americans grappling anew with the horrors of normalized bigotry, the icon’s personal belongings have found a new home at the Smithsonian.

Steve Liss / The LIFE Images Collection / Getty / Angela He / The Atlantic

In October 1998, Reggie Fluty, a police officer responding to a phoned-in tip, came across a limp figure strung up on a fence in a desolate field on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. There had been, initially, confusion about what Fluty was responding to: The teen boy who had called in the tip had initially assumed, riding his bike across the field, that he’d seen a scarecrow. He had not. The figure was the body of Matthew Shepard, 21 years old and a freshman at the University of Wyoming, who had been tied to the fence by two men he’d met in a bar in Laramie. They had robbed Shepard of the money in his wallet—$20—and then struck him across the head, repeatedly, with the butt of a large Smith & Wesson revolver. (The blows were so severe, a sheriff would later conclude, that Shepard’s injuries, including a fractured skull and a crushed brain stem, were less consistent with a beating than with a high-speed traffic collision.) The men then left Shepard, bloodied and swollen and barely alive, in the biting cold of the prairie night. It would be 18 hours before the bike-riding boy would find him.

The New York Times would later see in Shepard’s body, strung to that fence in the shadow of the snow-dusted Rockies, echoes of the Western custom of nailing dead coyotes to boundary markers—a warning to those who might consider intruding on private property. A message meant to foment fear, and also to make a statement about who belongs in a given space and who, in the assessment of the owners of the barriers, does not.

The state of Wyoming did not, in October 1998, have legislation against hate crimes. Despite everything that has taken place there, and in the country at large, since, it is one of five states that still lack such laws. The men who met and robbed and beat Shepard—who left him to die of his injuries nearly a week later in a hospital room in Colorado—were instead convicted of kidnapping and murder. They are each currently serving multiple life sentences for a killing that was a hate crime in practice if not in legal classification: The men beat Matthew Shepard, who was gay, because he was gay.

Because of that, Shepard, in his death, became an instant symbol: of bigotry, of violence, of hatred that is at once senseless and tragically consequential. His murder made national news those 20 years ago, horrifying a nation that reliably assumes itself to be better than it is. Lingering outrage about the murder inspired Congress to pass legislation against hate crimes: the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act—Byrd, a black man, had been chained to a truck and dragged to his death by white supremacists in July 1998—signed by President Barack Obama in 2009. Her son had always wanted his life to be meaningful, Shepard’s mother, Judy, would later comment; his horrific death brought a tragic fulfillment to that desire.

Twenty years later, Matthew Shepard remains a symbol of the tragic consequences of bigotry. His family, however, is hoping that he’ll live on in the American historical memory as much more than a martyr. To mark the anniversary of his death, Shepard’s family recently donated a collection of his belongings to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which houses an extensive collection of LGBTQ-focused objects and documents. The items are currently not being exhibited in the museum’s public halls but are available to researchers; I was given an introduction to them by Katherine Ott, the museum’s curator for medicine and science, and Franklin Robinson Jr., the archivist at the Smithsonian who manages Shepard’s papers.

The items are familiar, even in their specificity. (“He grew up,” Ott put it, “as a typical young queer kid, finding his way.”) There’s the Superman cape, shiny and red and handmade by Judy Shepard, that Matthew Shepard had once worn as a costume. There’s the pair of his sandals, their soles still covered in a thin layer of mud. There’s the 4-H ribbon from the Wyoming State Fair that Shepard had won, Ott told me, for a cornbread recipe he and his mother had developed together. There’s a fourth-place ribbon for a track event. (Of Shepard’s lack of athletic prowess, Ott put it like this: “His parents said, ‘Fourth place—that means there were four people in the race.’”) There’s the small, plush pair of lips with kiss stitched onto them that Judy Shepard would include in her son’s lunch bag every day.

The Superman cape Shepard wore as a child (Richard W. Strauss / Courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History)

There’s the thick, gold ring Shepard had bought with the intention that one day he would give it as a gift to his future husband. He’d had it customized. “He was a romantic,” Ott said.

There’s also the collection of documents, housed away from the objects in a specialized archives area: stacks of condolence letters sent from Americans across the country to the Shepards, as the news of their son’s death reverberated across the country. A store-bought sympathy card scrawled with brief notes by members of the University of Wyoming’s football team. The brightly colored paper art—construction and tissue—that Shepard had made as a boy. The pencil-scrawled note from one of Shepard’s grade-school teachers, encouraging him to stay strong in the face of bullying about his small size: “Did you know,” it reads, “the very best things are often in small packages? I think you’re WONDERFUL. Love, Mrs. Babb.”

A sympathy card, signed by members of the University of Wyoming’s football team, given to Shepard’s family after his death (Joe Hursey / Courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History)

Something can happen, when a tragic twist turns an ordinary life into an extraordinary one, to the person at the other end of the transformation: The idea of the person can overcome the truth of the person. A life, with all its kindnesses and contradictions and small truths and big ones, can give way to the soaring slights of hagiography. The symbolism—the martyrdom—can overtake everything else. That happened in 1998, as Matthew Shepard the person became Matthew Shepard the icon. His death would go on, in short order, to inspire multiple plays, and a film, and a chorale piece. His murder would become the subject of documentaries. It would become the subject of controversies. Elton John would write a song, “American Triangle,” about the circumstances of the slaughter. The fence where Shepard was left for dead, on that rocky prairie strewn with sagebrush and range grass, was briefly turned into a shrine, a repository for flowers and gifts and notes from people who did not know Matthew Shepard but, in another way, did. The fence would eventually be disassembled and removed, as if the landscape itself were ashamed of what had been allowed to take place on its barren expanse.

The objects in the Matthew Shepard collection, moved from the garage of the Shepard home in Casper, Wyoming, to the protective environs of the nation’s foremost historical museum, resist such acts of erasure. They are insistently present, and meaningfully—painfully—ordinary. They emphasize who Matthew Shepard the person was before he came Matthew Shepard the icon. He loved politics, and hoped one day to become a diplomat with the State Department. A child of Wyoming, he liked to camp and hunt and fish. He loved to act. He was exceptionally kind. He was unusually sensitive. In grade school, he’d dressed as Dolly Parton for three Halloweens in a row. In high school—his father was an oil-safety engineer for Aramco, the Saudi Arabian oil company, and his parents were stationed in the Gulf—Shepard attended an American school in Switzerland. While he was abroad, during a trip to Morocco, he’d been attacked and raped. He had just been emerging from the depression that the trauma had triggered, just been rebuilding himself and his life, when he was killed.

Shepard had been struggling. He’d been trying. He’d been hoping that things would get better. His papers, now filed and stored in a temperature-controlled facility that protects history for the future, testify to all that. Seen through the prism of the documents, Robinson, the archivist, put it to me, no longer is Shepard merely an image or an icon or “a symbol for the LGBT community and for hate crimes.” Instead, the objects encourage their viewers to ask, Robinson said, “If he had lived, what could he have accomplished?”

They ask other questions, as well, about the profound contingency of historical memory—the way some people are converted into icons, remembered and celebrated; the way others recede from view. The Shepard collection, evocative in its ordinariness, serves as a reminder that for every Matthew Shepard, enshrined in a museum—and for every James Byrd Jr., and for every Emmett Till, and for every other person whose name has been inscribed, in bold type, into the texts of American history—there are so many more. People who were robbed of their life by those who were fueled by hatred. People who are anonymous in their victimhood and silent in their suffering—people whose life has been made harder and sadder and worse than it might have been because there is a significant portion of people who look out on the American landscape and, gazing at all the rugged beauty, focus on the fences.

On October 26, in an event planned to coincide with the 20th anniversary of his murder, Matthew Shepard was interred at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. His family, in the past, had been reluctant to make such a move, fearing that his resting place might be vandalized by bigots; finally, however, they agreed to it, and Shepard’s cremated remains were placed in the soaring structure’s crypt, near those of Helen Keller and Woodrow Wilson. As part of the interment ceremony, a service celebrating Shepard’s life was held in the cathedral. It featured readings that sought light in times of darkness, and songs that emphasized love as a weapon against hatred. It was profoundly hopeful.

The day after the ceremony, a man driven by anti-Semitism burst into another such service, this one being conducted at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. With three pistols and an AR-15, he slaughtered 11 worshippers and injured seven more. It was the deadliest act of violence against the Jewish community in the nation’s history. It was also one more reminder of how normal hatred remains in a country that prides itself, despite so much evidence to the contrary, on its enlightenment. One more piece of evidence that violence, in America, is another thing that remains ordinary.