October 25, 2018 at 2:34 pm PST | by Michael K. Lavers
Matthew Shepard’s personal items donated to Smithsonian

Dennis Shepard, left, speaks at the National Museum of American History on Oct. 25, 2018. He and his wife, Judy Shepard, donated their son Matthew’s papers and personal belongings to the museum. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The parents of Matthew Shepard on Thursday officially donated some of their son’s papers and other personal items to the National Museum of American History.

A Superman cape that was part of one of Matthew Shepard’s Halloween costume, a preschool diploma and a wedding ring are among the items that Dennis and Judy Shepard donated to the museum. They also donated thousands of letters they received after Matthew Shepard’s death.

“Each object and piece of paper forever serves as evidence of American lives and histories,” said Susan Fruchter, the museum’s interim director, during a ceremony that Dennis and Judy Shepard attended. “It is through these acts of memory that we find common ground, empathy and resolve. The objects being donated today will forever be part of the story of civil rights activism woven through our nation’s history.”

The Shepards worked with National Museum of American History Curator Katherine Ott and her colleague, archivist Franklin Robinson, Jr., to determine which of their son’s papers and personal items they would donate.

“The Shepards did not choose to become part of history,” said Ott during the ceremony. “Certainly, they chose to be parents, they chose to live in Wyoming. They chose to be good neighbors, but they did not choose to have their lives overturned and to become continual public figures or to have their older son murdered and then scrutinized and then even sometimes blamed for his own killing.”

“They chose none of that,” she added.

Matthew Shepard died on Oct. 12, 1998, after Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson brutally beat him and left him tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyo. Dennis and Judy Shepard remain vocal LGBT advocates through their work with the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which they created after their son’s murder.

“We didn’t start off this way,” said Dennis Shepard during the ceremony. “We just thought we’d have two great kids.”

“Unfortunately, circumstances have brought us to honor Matt, which is to promote human rights and fight discrimination.”

Dennis Shepard: Trump ‘prime example of online bullying’

Sheila Alexander-Reid, director of the D.C. Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, and National LGBT Chamber of Commerce President Justin Nelson are among the more than 200 people who attended the ceremony that took place in the museum’s Hall of Music.

Students from George Mason University’s School of Theater performed excerpts of “The Laramie Project” during the ceremony. Harry Lewis, a graduate student at George Washington University, later interviewed Dennis and Judy Shepard.

The Shepards reiterated their harsh criticism of President Trump.

“We have a prime example of online bullying every single day from a big white building,” said Dennis Shepard in response to Lewis’ question about online bullying.

The Shepards also discussed the work they said lays ahead for LGBT activists once the Trump administration leaves the White House.

“Number one it is going to get the rights and privileges that are being chipped away everyday by this administration,” said Dennis Shepard. “You have a cabinet, a complete cabinet of homophobes you know you have a struggle to start with and when you see the lack of civility they are portraying, you know you have work to do.”

The Shepards reiterated their support for a nationwide ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and called for less heated political rhetoric from Democrats and Republicans alike. The Shepards also praised students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., who have encouraged young people to register to vote after a gunman killed 17 of their classmates and teachers.

Judy Shepard described the Women’s March as “the most amazing thing that I’ve ever witnessed.”

“It was the most joyous day for me, personally,” she told Lewis, adding she and her husband support the #MeToo movement. “It was everybody who had a voice and they were using their voice.”

Matthew Shepard’s ashes to be interred at National Cathedral

A candlelight vigil to commemorate Matthew Shepard’s life the Dupont Festival has organized will take place tonight in Dupont Circle. Retired New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, who in 2003 became the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop, is among those scheduled to speak on Friday at the Washington National Cathedral before Matthew Shepard’s ashes are interred.

Robinson attended Thursday’s ceremony at the National Museum of American History.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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