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Remembering Matthew Shepard

Twenty years ago, an ordinary young man was murdered. Why is his death so important to our history?

Courtesy The Matthew Shepard Foundation

    The National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., is filled with treasures from our country’s past. You can see a sword George Washington used during the Revolutionary War. President Abraham Lincoln’s top hat is on display. It even has Dorothy’s red slippers from The Wizard of Oz

    This museum honors people who have shaped our history. And last fall, the museum added new items to its collection. These items belonged to 21-year-old Matthew Shepard. 

    The museum has a Superman cape Shepard wore when he was a kid. It has a ribbon he won in track. It has a ring he hoped to give the person he would one day marry.

    Why are we honoring an ordinary college student next to presidents and famous artists? Matthew Shepard was never elected to office. He fought in no wars and wrote no books. But he is important to our history because of how and why he died.

    In Washington, D.C., there is a museum called the National Museum of American History. It has many items from our country’s past. It has a sword that George Washington used. It has Abraham Lincoln’s top hat. It even has the red slippers Dorothy wore in The Wizard of Oz

    This museum honors people from our history. Last fall, the museum took in some new items. They belonged to Matthew Shepard. 

    The museum has Shepard’s Superman cape. He wore it when he was a kid. The museum has a pair of his pants. It also has a ring he owned. He hoped to give it to the person he would marry one day.

    Shepard was a college student. So why are his things next to things owned by presidents and famous artists? He was never president. He fought in no wars. He wrote no books. But he is important because of how and why he died

    The National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., is brimming with treasures from our country’s past. A sword George Washington used during the Revolutionary War, President Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, and even Dorothy’s red slippers from The Wizard of Oz are all on display at the museum.

    The museum honors people who have shaped our history. Last fall, the museum added to its collection. The new items belonged to 21-year-old Matthew Shepard. Among the items are a Superman cape Shepard wore when he was a kid, a pair of his J.Crew pants, and a ring he hoped to give to the person he would one day marry.

    Why are the possessions of an ordinary college student being displayed next to those of presidents and famous artists? Shepard was never elected to office, fought in no wars, and wrote no books. However, how and why he died make him important to our history.

A Brutal Murder

    On a cold day in October 1998, Shepard was found in a field in Laramie, Wyoming. He had been brutally beaten. Six days later he died. Two men were arrested and charged with the murder. They admitted that they killed Shepard because he was a gay man.

    The murder quickly made national news. In cities around the country, people gathered to remember Shepard. Strangers hugged each other and cried together. 

    On the day of Shepard’s death, President Bill Clinton gave a speech. He said Americans must stand up against hate crimes. A hate crime is a crime motivated by the criminal’s hatred for a specific group of people. 

    Already, Shepard had become a symbol. He reminded Americans of the dangers faced by LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning) people. His murder helped many people in the nation unite against hate.

    Shepard was found in a field in Laramie, Wyoming. It was October 1998. He was 21 years old. He had been brutally beaten. He died six days later. Two men were arrested. They said they killed Shepard. Why did they do it? Because he was a gay man.

    The murder made national news. Around the country, people talked about Shepard. Strangers hugged and cried. 

    On the day Shepard died, President Bill Clinton gave a speech. He said Americans must stand up against hate crimes. A hate crime is a crime motivated by the criminal’s hatred for a specific group of people. 

    Shepard became a symbol. He reminded Americans of the dangers LGBTQ people faced. (“LGBTQ” stands for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning.”) His murder helped unite people against hate.

    Shepard was found in a field in Laramie, Wyoming, on a frigidly cold day in October 1998. He had been brutally beaten—and six days later he died. The two men who were arrested and charged with the murder admitted that they killed Shepard because he was a gay man.

    The murder quickly made national headlines. In cities around the country, people gathered to remember Shepard and console each other. Strangers hugged and cried together.

    On the day of Shepard’s death, President Bill Clinton addressed the nation. He said Americans must stand up against hate crimes. A hate crime is a crime motivated by the criminal’s hatred for a specific group of people. 

    Shepard became a symbol of the dangers faced by LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning) people. His murder prompted many Americans to unite against hate.

Casper Star Tribune (newspaper); Courtesy Michele Josue (Matthew and friends)

Gone Too Soon
Matthew poses for a photo with friends three years before his death (above). His murder at age 21 united many people in his Wyoming community against hate (left). 

Crimes of Hate

    Shepard’s murder came as a shock to many Americans. “People thought things were starting to change,” says Jay Brown. Brown works for the Human Rights Campaign. That’s a group that fights for the rights of LGBTQ people. “Then they realized that being gay could still be a matter of life and death.”

    In fact, Shepard was just one of many LGBTQ victims in 1998. That year, there were more than 1,400 anti-gay crimes. Four of those crimes were murders. 

    After Shepard’s death, his parents wanted to help end the violence. They pushed lawmakers to protect LGBTQ people. At the time, the U.S. had a law against hate crimes. But this law covered only race, skin color, religion, gender, and national origin.

    Finally, in 2009, LGBTQ people were added to the hate crimes law. Eleven years after their son’s death, the Shepards had won their fight.

    Shepard’s murder shocked people. “People thought things were starting to change,” says Jay Brown. He works for the Human Rights Campaign, a group that fights for the rights of LGBTQ people. “Then they realized that being gay could still be a matter of life and death.”

    Shepard was one of many LGBTQ victims in 1998. That year, there were more than 1,400 anti-gay crimes. Four were murders. 

    After Shepard’s death, his parents wanted to help end the violence. The U.S. had a law against hate crimes. But it covered only race, skin color, religion, gender, and national origin. The Shepards fought for laws to protect LGBTQ people. They won. LGBTQ people were added to the hate crimes law in 2009.

    Shepard’s murder shocked people across the nation. “People thought things were starting to change,” explains Jay Brown, who works for the Human Rights Campaign, a group that fights for the rights of LGBTQ people. “Then they realized that being gay could still be a matter of life and death.”

    In fact, Shepard was just one of many LGBTQ victims in 1998. That year, there were more than 1,400 anti-gay crimes, four of which were murders. 

    After Shepard’s death, his parents wanted to help end the violence, so they pressured lawmakers to protect LGBTQ people. Though at the time the U.S. had a law against hate crimes, it covered only race, skin color, religion, gender, and national origin.

    In 2009, LGBTQ people were added to the groups protected by the hate crimes law. Eleven years after their son’s death, the Shepards had finally won their fight.

Changing Times

    Today, it’s been 20 years since Shepard’s murder. In many ways, our nation has become more accepting of LGBTQ people. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that gay couples could marry. LGBTQ characters appear in movies like Love, Simon. And in 2018, Colorado elected the first openly gay governor.

    But there are still many hate crimes against LGBTQ people. And three-quarters of LGBTQ teens say they don’t always feel safe at school.

    Shepard’s mother, Judy, hopes to help these teens. She travels around telling her son’s story. And she asks students to fight against hate. “I want them to know there’s hope,” she says. 

    It was this same hope that led the National Museum of American History to take Matthew’s belongings. Katherine Ott is in charge of the collection. She thinks that seeing Matt’s things will help people relate to him. They’ll see that at one point, he was just a kid who liked to pretend he was a superhero. 

    Being gay shouldn’t have made him feel like he didn’t belong, Ott says. “It’s OK to be different,” she explains. “The things that make you different should not put you in danger.” 

    It has been 20 years since Shepard’s murder. Our nation is now more accepting of LGBTQ people. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that gay couples could marry. LGBTQ characters appear in movies and TV shows. And last year, Colorado elected the first openly gay governor.

    But LGBTQ people are still victims of hate crimes. And three out of four LGBTQ teens say they don’t always feel safe at school.

    Shepard’s mom, Judy, wants to help these teens. She tells her son’s story. She asks students to fight against hate. “I want them to know there’s hope,” she says. 

    Hope is why the museum took in Matthew’s things. Katherine Ott is in charge of the collection. She thinks seeing Matthew’s things will help people feel a connection to him.

    “It’s OK to be different,” says Ott. “The things that make you different should not put you in danger.”

    Today—20 years since Shepard’s murder—our nation is more accepting of LGBTQ people. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that gay couples could marry. Popular movies, like Love, Simon, tell the stories of LGBTQ characters. And in 2018, Colorado elected the first openly gay governor.

    However, there are still many hate crimes against LGBTQ people. And one study found that three-quarters of LGBTQ teens don’t always feel safe at school.

    Shepard’s mother, Judy, tells her son’s story around the country, trying to help these teens. She encourages students to fight against hate. “I want them to know there’s hope,” she says. 

    That same hope for change is what led the National Museum of American History to take Matthew’s belongings. Katherine Ott, who manages the collection, thinks that seeing Matthew’s things will help people relate to him. They’ll see that at one point, he was just a kid who liked to pretend he was a superhero. 

    Being gay shouldn’t have caused him to feel like he didn’t belong, Ott says. “It’s OK to be different,” she explains. “The things that make you different should not put you in danger.” 

Joe Hursey/NMAH Archives Center/National Museum of American History/The Smithsonian Institution (Matthew Shepard); Shutterstock.com (all other photos)

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