National Museum of American History

Matt Shepard's Objects at the Smithsonian Show Us the Familiarity of an Icon

Matt Shepard in high school, taken in Lugano, Switzerland (NMAH)
Matt Shepard in high school, taken in Lugano, Switzerland (NMAH)

In October 1998, a college student named Matt Shepard was brutally murdered in Laramie, Wyoming, by two young men. Matt was slight of build, 5'2", and gay. The two men who murdered him pretended to be gay in order to rob him. His killing made headlines around the world and resulted in an outpouring of grief and anger that people channeled into poetry, songs and musical compositions, movies, a charity foundation, a national Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and at least two plays, The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.

Beyond the tragedy of how he died, Matt Shepard is of interest because of so many familiar things about how he lived for 21 years. Matt's parents recently entrusted the museum with materials related to his life. I have been piecing together a sense of him, 20 years later, through the things left to represent him, stories from his parents, and published accounts.

Stack of envelopes addressed to the family of Matthew Shepard
Stack of condolence cards and letters sent to Judy and Dennis Shepard in the days and weeks after their son was murdered. (Matthew Shepard Papers, NMAH Archives Center)

Is it possible to ever know which one person Matt was? He had many different kinds of friends and was still becoming himself. As a little boy in Wyoming, he was talkative and curious. He wore a Superman cape. In grade school, he was Dolly Parton for Halloween three years in a row. He camped and fished and hunted with his family and grandparents. He and his mother shared an interest in politics and culture. He liked to act and was regularly in theater productions. He was outgoing, friendly, and a kind friend who was aware of others more than many kids his age.

Red superman cape
Matt's Superman cape from grade school (NMAH)

In a grade school fill-in-the-blank activity about emotional health, Matt wrote: "When someone you are talking to gives advice when you didn’t ask for it, it makes you feel sad like I look stuped or insecure. When someone you are talking to seems shocked or offended by something you've said, it makes you feel sorry, guilty. When someone you are talking to gazes around the room while you are talking to them, it makes you feel unimportant. What do you do? Stop talking and talk about something interesting to them." Later in the exercise, he wrote, "I am a person who likes people; I am a person who enjoys listening; I am a person who cares about the [well] being of others."

Matt is familiar in being unexceptional. He sometimes struggled in school due to a learning disability. He wore braces on his teeth for years. His story is familiar because he was young and restless and believed himself invincible.

Purple ribbon and entry tag
Purple ribbon for his entry in the "Foods" section of the Central Wyoming Fair, 1980s (NMAH)

During his senior year of high school, Matt and some friends went to Morocco. He went out alone one night and was jumped by three men who raped him. After that, he wore loose clothes to hide his body, he had nightmares, and he tried different anxiety medications, but took them inconsistently. He drank and had periods of depression and dropped out of college for a while. He struggled to get out from under the crushing weight of the attack. He had loyal and fierce friendships and a couple of boyfriends. He purchased a ring for his imagined future husband. By the time he enrolled at the University of Wyoming in September 1998, he seemed to be getting his life together—back in the West, demons corralled, near his family, focused on school.

Gold wedding band in dark green ring box
Ring purchased in college, in anticipation of getting married someday (NMAH)

There are many reasons that might have led to him to leave the Fireside Lounge in Laramie with two guys in a pickup truck that night. He was gay when being gay could make you especially vulnerable, and sometimes, when you are 21, you just do it. Then, as now, being LGBTQ can be joyful and fabulous as well as dangerous and a personal burden.

Twenty years on, reading through the stacks of condolence messages, thinking about the objects he left, remembering the thousands of lives he has influenced, and trying to make sense of his life does not bring a sense of peace or grace. It reminds me of how far the needle of history still needs to move to get people who are outside the box to a place of safety and acceptance.

Matt Shepard's parents signing deed of gift with curator
Matthew Shepard's parents sign the deed of gift donating their son's objects to the museum. (NMAH)

This post was originally published on the National Museum of American History's blog on October 25, 2018. Read the original version here.

This post was originally published on the National Museum of American History's blog on October 25, 2018. Read the original version here.

Katherine Ott, PhD

Katherine Ott spends her time thinking, talking, and writing about how and why people in the past were tagged for being different—because of disease, gender, disability, sexuality, race, or behavior that others disapproved. She is a curator (PhD, Temple University) at the National Museum of American History and uses objects such as prosthetics, artificial skin, X-Ray tubes, and acupuncture needles to take her back in time. Number 1 on her bucket list is finding the perfect plate of vegetarian enchiladas which she suspects is hiding somewhere in the Southwest.

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