I knew about Matt’s legacy, but I didn’t know much about his life.
The ring Matt purchased was modest but unique: a medium-width gold band, two black lines running parallel around its edges, diagonal brushstrokes between them, scored like a mane on a sprinting horse, like the ring is going somewhere, in motion.
In reality, the ring is stagnant. It’s tucked inside its original deep-teal velvet box, on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Back when I was nineteen, I was also quite the romantic. I watched endless romcoms, read Nicholas Sparks novels, and recorded details about my boyfriends obsessively: the one who would sprint to my dorm room from any party I wasn’t at, shirt off and out of breath in my doorway, smiling, or the one who would hide small dollar-store chocolates around my room for me to find—in my shoes, books, backpack. I wrote emails to my friends from home saying, “He’s the one!” I called my parents to talk about dates and fights and future plans. I cried to them during breakups and sought advice when I felt lost. They consoled and advised me with ease.
Then I came out at twenty-six, and I stopped journaling about crushes, stopped saving sentimental items, stopped celebrating anniversaries. I didn’t write emails or make calls to discuss my relationships. Even though I was out, I still felt like I had to hide the specifics of my queerness.
I stopped feeling excited about dating, started feeling fear instead. Fear of questions like: how does the sex work? Or, buthow do you know you’re gay? Or, do you think your interest in women has anything to do with the fact that you’ve had troublesome relationships with men in the past? Fear of receiving birthday cards in the mail that began: Honest, it wouldn’t be my choice for you . . .
And as those ignorant but predictable questions rolled in, the genuine questions, the kind people used to ask whenever I’d started dating a new guy—What’s he like? What do you like about him? What does he do? Where is he from?—petered out. I missed sharing those details. Missed being easily understood. I longed to be consolable, advisable once more.
I first encountered a photo of Matthew Shepard’s wedding band in an online Smithsonian exhibit called “Illegal to Be You: Gay History Beyond Stonewall.” I scrolled through the exhibit’s images: colorful Pride buttons spanning the decades, faded covers of queer publications, old, worn matchbooks from Los Angeles gay bars. And then, on the last page, an image of a gold ring propped inside a ring box with the caption: “Wedding ring, around 1996. Purchased by Matt Shepard while in college in anticipation of a future marriage.” Matt’s name stopped me mid-scroll, my fingertip shaky on the mouse, an inhale that felt like it would never release.
What I knew about Matt at that point was what most people know about him: that he was brutally murdered by two men his age at twenty-one years old in Laramie, Wyoming. Matt’s death, a result of homophobia, received unprecedented media attention. He became a queer icon almost overnight, in a way no one had before. After a decade of lobbying, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was finally signed into law in 2009, the same year I graduated from high school.
I knew about Matt’s legacy, but I didn’t know much about his life. So, when I saw his ring for the first time, polished, never worn, I felt an ache in my chest, the kind that opens and doesn’t close, just becomes a part of you. I imagined him—young, romantic, hopeful—sitting on his dorm room bed while his roommate was gone, flipping the ring over in his fingers, daydreaming about meet-cutes and first kisses. I imagined him still alive today, forty-five years old and walking into a grocery store with a fabric mask over his nose and mouth, holding the hand of the man he loves, his fingertips pressed against the warm, solid metal of the ring.
Anna and I face each other under the hot stream of the shower, thawing our limbs and joints from the mid-November freeze, our washing routine long since finished.
“I think we should just buy them already,” I say, looking her in the eye.
Earlier in the week, Anna burst through the door to my home office and showed me a photo of a delicate gold ring with a large, semi-translucent, salt-and-pepper hexagon diamond, wrapped in a thick gold bezel setting and book ended by two smaller white triangle diamonds. “Isn’t it perfect?” she asked. It was.
We found a complementary ring for me that same day—a medium-width gold band with a small gray hexagon diamond set flush in its center, outlined by a thin black hand-engraved hexagon.
The water hits Anna’s neck and collarbone, turning her skin pink. Her face scrunches.
“But mine’s so expensive,” she says, her voice stiff, her approach to wanting like a car slowly skidding to a halt. “And I thought we were going to wait.”
I shrug, less concerned with the details. “And mine’s cheap. So, it evens out.”
“Cheaper,” she says, raising an eyebrow.
Her mouth turns up at the corners, revealing the smallest smile, and for a moment, we are both just standing there, naked, wet, warm, already family.
I can’t stop thinking about Matt and what his ring-buying day might have been like. Was it winter, like it is now? A bright, sunny, biting day in Wyoming? Did he walk or drive or take a bus to REEDS Jewelers? Did he have to lie to the jeweler about who the ring was really for? And how had he paid for it as a college freshman? Saved up all summer? Used some of his student loan money and forgone books for the semester? Borrowed from his parents? How long had he been planning it? Had he told anyone?
I Google REEDS Jewelers to find the closest location to Laramie, WY, hoping to determine where exactly he bought the ring. No REEDS locations appear near Laramie, nor the entire state of Wyoming. On Wikipedia, I learn that Matt attended Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina for his freshman year, which explains how and why he’d bought the ring from a REEDS Jewelers. After that, he transferred to several different schools in his home state of Wyoming, searching for a place to belong.
The more I learn about Matt, the more I wish he could have lived to tell his own story. I want to know if he ever found the queer community he was searching for, or if he ever felt truly safe. I want to know about the guys he dated, what they were like, if he thought about a future with any of them. And I wish he could tell me exactly what the gold wedding band had meant to him. But he can’t. So, I keep searching online, trying to find answers.
“There were instructions on how to score [the ring],” historian Katherine Ott says in a Smithsonian article about Matt. “For the jeweler to decorate it a little extra. Because [Matt] was going to get married—fall in love someday.”
Katherine’s name pops up in almost all of the articles I’ve read so far, either as the author or a quoted expert. Katherine seems to be the historian who curated Matt’s belongings at the Smithsonian, including the ring. Their quote is the most specific piece of information I have about Matt’s ring so far. I can rule out the possibility that he’d bought it on a whim. Customizations take time and planning and direct conversations with jewelers.
I’m curious how much more Katherine might know, so I send them an email explaining my interest in the ring and asking whether they can share anything else.
Their reply comes a month later. It’s shorter than I hoped.
They dive right in, listing a few facts I already know: that Matt’s parents didn’t know about the ring until they found it among his things, that he had the black engraved band added, that he bought it while at Catawba College.
“So the Reed’s [sic] must have been there,” Katherine writes, “or perhaps Winston-Salem or Greensboro.”
The first time I thought about an engagement ring, I was twenty-three and nearing the end of a four-year relationship with a cis guy. We were at that point in heterosexual relationships where people say you either get married or break up. Being straight often felt like that—linear, prescriptive.
I sat on my bed after my boyfriend left my apartment one night, feeling conflicted about the relationship but afraid to leave him. In an attempt to imagine what might come next for us if I stayed, I Googled engagement rings on my laptop, each photo a window into a possible future together. I extended my hand out in front of me, thick and square, and imagined a dainty, glittering diamond band on my finger, a larger diamond jutting out at its center.
The idea of such a ring on my finger felt jarring. I imagined all the threads I would someday loose with its prongs, the accidental scratches on my future kid’s arm, imagined being called a wife. I didn’t know it yet, but in a handful of years, I’d come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t straight, nor a woman. All I knew then was that my outstretched arm felt uncomfortably light, as if it were floating away from my body, as if this one step forward with him might sever me from myself. I shook my hand to put it right again, to feel the pull of my ligaments and tendons, closed my laptop, left the relationship.
For the next five years, I didn’t think much about engagement rings. I figured I would get a cheap silicone band someday, the kind people use for sports or gardening, meant to be damaged, easy to replace.
Then I met Anna.
For the first month we dated, she drove an hour both ways on the most boring stretch of I-5 in Oregon to visit me. She was the first to flirt. First to initiate a kiss. First to say I love you. She was all romance, all open and vulnerable, and I was all fear and rules. I scheduled alone time during her visits. Said no to any kind of physical touch before ten in the morning. Continued to put pillows between us as we slept. But she kept texting heart-eye emojis, kept handwriting love poems that reminded her of me, kept sending heartfelt cards after each date. And she kept proving that she saw me, all of me, not just the parts she wanted to see. She could tell whenever I was holding back emotions just by looking at my eyes—“They’re just so god damn expressive!” she’d say over FaceTime. She used different combinations of pronouns for me whenever I asked, never batting an eye when I changed my mind or couldn’t decide what felt right.
Slowly, I started to trust her gestures and return them. I sent her songs that made me think of her. Recorded anniversary dates in my phone. Researched the perfect terrarium to have delivered to her office. I cried in front of her, trusted my dogs with her, eventually moved out of a house I’d only owned for six months to live with her. And I saw her, too. Saw when she needed a nudge toward self-care after a long day of teletherapy. Saw how much time she spent making birthday cakes for our pets or researching a Zoom dance class for date night, how the ritual of celebration allowed her a reprieve from anxiety.
I started to see what Anna had always seen: that we didn’t have to hide the details of who we were and what we needed and how we loved, no matter how messy or complicated or ever-changing. That queer love didn’t have a linear path, and sometimes that was scary, but the joy and healing was in how we could make it our own, together.
There are fourteen REEDS Jewelers in the state of North Carolina. None of them are in Salisbury. The five closest locations are in Charlotte and Greensboro—all forty-five to sixty minutes from Catawba College. There are a handful of other jewelers in Salisbury, which means Matt made a conscious choice to travel outside of town to buy his ring. I wonder what caused this choice: safety and anonymity or price and inventory. Perhaps something else entirely.
After an hour of clicking back and forth from Google Maps to Wikipedia, I’ve ruled out two locations in Charlotte that weren’t yet open when Matt was alive. There are three options left—the Eastridge Mall or the Carolina Place Mall near Charlotte, or a location in Greensboro that’s now permanently closed.
Anna grew up in North Carolina. When I tell her Matt may have bought his ring in Charlotte or Greensboro, she tells me she and her grandma used to shop at the Four Seasons Town Centre in Greensboro, just ten miles south of where the REEDS Jewelers used to be. For the rest of the night, I picture Anna and Matt passing each other on the freeway back in 1996, seven and nineteen. I play the brief moment over and over like a GIF, at once soothed and agitated.
Sometimes I forget I was alive when Matt had the ring made, when he was murdered. Can’t remember exactly what that world was like, in which I was five and then seven, in which the ring was warm and alive at the center of his palm and then cold and vacant in a drawer at his parents’ house. It’s tempting to assume I don’t remember because we’ve made progress since then, and that’s partially true, but it’s also because I don’t have to remember that world: I still feel it daily.
That queer love didn’t have a linear path, and sometimes that was scary, but the joy and healing was in how we could make it our own, together.
I felt it after I kissed a woman for the first time in 2009 and kept it a secret for a decade. I felt it in the sweat on my palm where my iPhone rested the day I came out to my mom over FaceTime in 2018, in the unfamiliar silence that hung in the years after. And I felt it in the angry yell from a passing Jeep when Anna and I took a walk near my hometown, holding hands. In our tightened grips, our flinch, the blinking. Felt it several blocks later, when it happened again, the driver’s voice ricocheting off the side mirror, inaudible but clear. And every time we went for a walk after that, when our bodies stiffened, when we stopped reaching for each other’s hand, kept saying let’s walk a different way this time.
Only now, it’s not just me. It’s the person who makes me feel safest—us, together—and along with fear, I feel rage big enough to protect us thousands of times over, and the knowledge that ultimately, it can’t.
In December, on the night we plan to buy our rings, we pick up a 5th Avenue sushi roll for Anna and a tofu Bahn Mi with a fried egg for me. Once home, Anna places the brown takeout bags on the kitchen counter and carefully plates each meal. I shoo our three dogs into the living room with chew toys. Anna pours coconut water and wine. I light a few candles. We are like that together: strands of a braid swooping in to fill the space the other has left, methodical and efficient. As we eat, a shyness that feels sweet and finite settles into our stomachs like a small dose of our first date, where we were both so nervous we hardly touched our food. Now we wipe up every last drop of sauce and yolk with our fingers.
When we’re done eating, we pull out Anna’s silver MacBook and Anna types the jeweler’s URL into the search box, the way we’ve done so many times in the past month. We both lean forward as she applies the correct filters. She locates the listing for her ring, and we click through the photos to admire it once more, remembering how we were drawn to the hexagon diamond. Something about its six sides, like our family of six—two humans, three dogs, one cat—made us think, us, ours.
We select a size-4.25 band and laugh about Anna’s tiny fingers. We lock eyes and raise our eyebrows, as if waiting for something to jump out of the calm. It doesn’t. We add it to the cart.
Then Anna navigates to my ring, a size-9.5 band, the black hexagon engraving around the diamond like a forcefield around our family of six, a little something extra.
In a Smithsonian documentary called Beyond Stonewall (2019), Katherine Ott briefly shares Matt’s story. When I see Katherine on screen for the first time, I’m instantly drawn to them. They are white with short gray hair, black glasses, and a faint blondish mustache above their upper lip. They wear a sharp burgundy suit jacket over a gray button down with small black polka dots. I realize I’ve probably never seen a queer historian before.
“Historian objects are like umbilical cords,” Katherine explains. “They’re like a superhighway . . . to the future, to those who come after us [and] want to know: Am I the only one in the world to have ever felt like this? You need to have people save stories so that you can find yourself.”
I have not uncovered the story behind Matt’s ring. I don’t know which city he bought it in, how he got there, nor who he was with. I haven’t found the jeweler he worked with nor determined the significance of the customizations he made to the ring. But I have learned enough about Matt to question the narrative of the ring—the one I’ve read over and over and also defaulted to myself—that the ring was a “symbol of hope.” It feels overly simple, awash in the same kind of heteronormativity that asks who wears the pants in the relationship.
On a whim, I look up the timeline of same-sex marriage equality in the US, most of which occurred before I was alive or out. I see something I knew about but hadn’t realized was so recent: In September 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law. DOMA defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman and allowed states to refuse to recognize marriages that did not fit this description.
Suddenly, within the context of queer history, the story behind the ring becomes more complicated and simultaneously makes more sense. Perhaps Matt bought it as a response to homophobic legislature. As a symbol of anger and rebellion. Perhaps straight history could not hold Matt’s anger the way queer history could, could only grieve him by rendering him powerless, harmless.
But Matt was not powerless. Matt took walks alone late at night. Matt moved around, changed his mind. Matt drank. Matt was hospitalized and medicated for mental illness. Matt showed up as one person with his queer friends and another with his straight friends and family. Matt had secrets. Matt bought a ring.
After Anna and I buy our rings, after we toast with champagne, take selfies with our order confirmation, close the laptop, we gather towels and a Bluetooth speaker, and drive ten minutes to the local private outdoor hot tubs. In the forty-degree black night, we strip off our clothing piece by piece—oversized Nike sweatshirts, cotton t-shirts from years-ago sporting events, sports bras, tennis shoes, ankle socks, sweatpants, underwear—hanging each garment on the metal hooks protruding from weathered wood walls, wet concrete floor icing the bare soles of our feet.
I tiptoe over to the large white tub of bubbling water, step onto the shallowest step, then immediately to the deepest middle, hot water dancing around my collarbone and shoulders, stars pinpointed into the dark sky above. Anna sets the speaker beside the tub, puts on our playlist, the songs we fell in love to, then joins me, her body cold, cold, cold, then hot.
Because we’ve been coming to these hot tubs every month since the summer, I know this is how the hour will go: Anna will glide across the tub toward me, chin tilted down, nearly touching the water, hair in a top bun, arms out like wings floating just under the water’s surface. She’ll sit on my lap, wrap her legs around my hips, blue-green eyes, and her falling-in-love smile, the bottoms of her thighs solid against the tops of mine. I’ll wrap my arms around her slippery torso, my cheek to her chest. We’ll stay like this, quiet, breathing. After a few minutes, I’ll realize I’ve been on tiptoes the whole time, and when I release my calves, my heels will sink to the plastic bottom of the tub, Anna’s weight grounding me. Eventually we will separate—she’ll stretch her always-aching hips, and I’ll spread my arms out along the lip of the tub, steam swelling off our skin into the cold air.