When Brooklyn Nets center Jason Collins presented the parents of Matthew Shepard with a jersey after his team’s victory over the Denver Nuggets last week, the kind gesture, like the cruel crime endured by Shepard more than fifteen years ago, took on a symbolic importance apart from the substance of the actual event.
“After last night’s 112-89 victory over the Nuggets in Denver,” the sports site Deadspin reported, “Jason Collins met briefly with the family of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old from Casper, Wyo., who was tortured and murdered for being gay in 1998.” The Associated Press similarly reported in newspapers across America: “After his cameo in Brooklyn’s recovery from a 44-point loss against the Trail Blazers 24 hours earlier, Collins, the first openly gay athlete in America’s four major sports, met with the parents of the slain Wyoming college student who was tortured and murdered in 1998 because he was gay.”
The media coverage at least accurately reported one fact: Jason Collins wears number 98 in homage to the young gay man brutally pistol-whipped to death in Wyoming in the late 1990s. “My one small gesture of solidarity was to wear jersey number 98 with the Celtics and then the Wizards,” Collins wrote in Sports Illustrated last year about playing in the NBA as a closeted gay man. “The number has great significance to the gay community. One of the most notorious antigay hate crimes occurred in 1998. Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, was kidnapped, tortured and lashed to a prairie fence.”
But Matthew Shepard wasn’t “tortured and murdered for being gay.” It doesn’t make his murder any more rational or less horrific to acknowledge that the atrocity wasn’t an “antigay hate crime.” But why let the facts get in the way of so useful a story?
“Matthew was part of an interstate meth-trafficking circle,” Stephen Jimenez writes in The Book of Matt, “and that the buying and selling of crystal meth was only one of the activities he and Aaron [McKinney] shared.” The openly-gay author there alludes to the fact that apart from being drug buddies and rival drug dealers, Shepard and his murderer were sexual partners. This fact, as inconvenient to the closet-case male prostitute McKinney as it is to activists mythologizing a murder, makes the well-worn yarn about an “antigay hate-crime” so easy to unravel.
His parents called him the Bad Karma Kid for all his lousy luck. But others lacking parental bias might have left out the “karma” and just called Matthew Shepard a bad kid. At just 21, Shepard compressed several suicide attempts, an HIV diagnosis, addiction, underworld drug-trafficking activities, and an arrest for child molestation into his short life. “At age fifteen Matthew was arrested for molesting two eight-year-old boys in his Caspar neighborhood,” Jimenez reports. “According to a relative of one of the boys, Matthew received counseling to help him deal with the incident; he’d also attempted suicide and been hospitalized, she said.” When Aaron McKinney murdered Matthew Shepard, among the many things he took from his victim was the ability to transition from a tumultuous youth into a decent adulthood.
Jimenez interviewed numerous people who affirm that McKinney, a male hustler known in Denver’s gay bars, had sex with Matthew Shepard on numerous occasions, rendering false the mythology that a homophobic stranger bent on killing a gay man targeted the diminutive University of Wyoming student for his sexuality. Jimenez talked to several law-enforcement officers who vouch that police surveillance caught McKinney having sex with other men on two occasions, a bartender at a gay club who volunteered that McKinney frequently turned tricks for his patrons, and a former lover of Shepard’s who participated in group sex with Shepard and McKinney on multiple occasions.
“[A]aron screwed [M]att at least 5 times that I know of,” Ted Henson, who was so close to Shepard that his parents presented him with a vial of his ashes, told Jimenez. “[M]att made me feel sorry for him a lot and I would do anything for [M]att. [S]o when [M]att would go get high, his payment to [A]aron was his ass, and [A]aron would only do it if [A]aron, [M]att, and I would have a 3 way together.” Two female friends of Shepard also affirm that the bisexual murderer and his homosexual victim partook in other group-sex activities together.
Not only did Matthew Shepard and Aaron McKinney know one another, contrary to the media narrative that they first met on Shepard’s last night, they knew each other in the most physically intimate manner possible. The pair also shared an addiction to, and the racket of trafficking, methamphetamine. The degree of involvement in the meth trade by Shepard–whose autopsy found meth ingredient phenylpropanolamine among other narcotics in the his system–remains a point of contention between Jimenez and his many critics. Based on interviews with dozens of investigators and associates, Jimenez theorizes that McKinney killed Shepard with the intent of stealing a massive shipment of meth to feed his addictions, pay of his debts, and rid himself of competition. While assigning reasons to an evil soul hopped up from a multi-day meth binge may be an inherently unreasonable endeavor, certain facts–the drug common denominator and the fact that killer and victim shared a sexual bond–make the idea that murderous homophobia took the young man’s life a convenient but false notion.
But this far-fetched motive proved irresistible to journalists, politicians, and activists seeking a Medgar Evers for gay rights. Congressmen posthumously employed Shepard to name a federal hate crimes law and waved the bloody shirt to demonize opponents. “Mr. Trent Lott, Mr. Newt Gingrich, Mr. Jerry Falwell, how many Christs must bear the crosses until we learn that we are all children of God?” asked then-lesbian Anne Heche. “You have witnessed a demonstration of what your ignorant teachings about gays and lesbians breed.” Jason Collins’s jersey-number tribute proves a more generous gesture than Heche’s hateful harangue. But Collins’s act of goodwill is still based on a lie.
The Nets center went public with his private life “to be genuine and authentic and truthful.” But the political statement on his jersey is anything but that.
Matthew Shepard engaged in seedy activities and ran with seedy associates. Those associations, not his homosexuality, led to his tragic and grisly death. Aaron McKinney, and his accomplice Russell Henderson, didn’t heartlessly kill Matthew Shepard because they hated gays. They killed him because they loved meth.