It is impossible to overestimate the importance of Matthew Shepard’s murder to the modern gay movement. From the first reports of his brutal attack down to the present day, Shepard’s death stands as the hagiographic moment.
The day of his death is remembered each year as a kind of feast day, similar to the days celebrated by Catholics for their great saints. His name is intoned in story and song.
This hagiography began even before he was dead, even as he lay in a coma for five days after Aaron McKinney jammed a gun butt so deep into his skull that his brainstem was exposed.
Within a few days, Shepard’s friends began circulating the story that resonates with millions all over the world even today. He was lured to his torture and death by two all-too-regular Joes who all-too-regularly hated gays and killed Matthew–indeed, crucified him on a fence–for no other reason than he was gay.
Matthew Shepard was the perfect victim. Like Christ, he was not of this world, not of the Laramie world anyway. He was educated in far away Switzerland and spoke several languages, including Arabic. He dreamed of being a diplomat. He was kind to everyone, even those who harassed him. And he was achingly handsometousled blond hair, slight of frame, and delicately chiseled. He was sent to Laramie–to each of us and to the world–to teach us lessons, lessons he teaches even now.
It is clear that Matthew was brutally murdered and clear also that his killers got what they deserved. They will never breathe free air again. They will die in prison and no one will mind.
But a new book out by award winning gay journalist Stephen Jiminez tells a markedly different story than the hagiography. After several years and one hundred interviews, Jiminez tells a story that should have been plain to even the most biased eyes; Shepard knew his killers, did drugs and sold drugs with them, and was killed over a drug dispute. What is new in the book is that he also had sex with them. This, of course, would contradict the notion that he died for his homosexuality.
But the gay movement had been longing for a gay face, a sympathetic face that the country would rally around. Shortly after he died, the editorial board of the New York Times wrote, “For homosexuals, the key to winning acceptance and respect has been to make themselves familiar, visible and known. Yet in almost 30 years of struggle to repeal state sodomy laws and win equal protection under law, the modern gay rights movement has never achieved a recognizable public face. Now, in a victim, a young man who wanted to be a diplomat, it has been given one [emphasis added].”
It was the New York Times that drove this story. Certainly the gay movement latched onto it, but the New York Times drives elites, particularly elite media. They were all over it from the very beginning.
Four days after the attack and before Shepard died, the Times‘ James Brooke published a story that asserted in the lede that Matthew was gay and in the third paragraph established his attack as a hate crime. Most of this first news story in the Times was about Shepard’s gayness.
Brooke filed a second story two days later, while Matthew was still alive, about candle-light vigils in Wyoming and how Laramie had a history of homophobia; a billboard had been defaced five years earlier to encourage people to “Shoot a gay or two.”
The next day, Brooke filed another story about Shepard’s death, saying, “In places from Denver to the University of Maryland, people turned out to mourn the soft-spoken 21 year old who became an overnight symbol of deadly violence against gay people…”
The same day, the Times ran an unsigned editorial comparing Shepard’s death to the lynching of blacks and that his murder “may do much to dispel the stubborn belief in some quarters that homosexuals are not discriminated against. They are. Hatred can kill.”
Over the next few weeks, Times columnist Frank Rich went hammer and tongs after conservative Christians, who he targeted as the reason Shepard was killed. In particular, he went after the Family Research Council, which had been running television advertising encouraging gays to reconsider their way of life; or, as Rich described it, a campaign “to demonize gay people for political gain in this election year.”
Time Magazine was a big deal in those days, and their cover story for the week of October 19th was huge. Headlined “That’s Not a Scarecrow,” the Time story ran on the cover and garnered global attention. The short Time story also fingered the religious right for the attack on Shepard.
The religious imagery began almost immediately. Shepard was left dangling on a fence, still alive, just like Christ on the cross. A long Vanity Fair piece from the following spring was entitled “The Crucifixion of Matthew Shepard.” At his funeral, Reverend Royce W. Brown compared the fence Matthew was tied to with the cross of Christ: ”There is an image that comes to mind when I reflect on Matt on that wooden cross rail fence. I replace that image with that of another man hung upon a cross. When I concentrate on that man, I can release the bitterness inside.” A pastor in Kirkland, Washington actually gave a sermon called, “Matthew Shepard Died for Our Sins.”
Such comparisons became so universal that a writer for Harper’s Magazine rejected the “quasi-religious characterizations of Matthew’s passion, death, and resurrection as patron saint of hate-crime legislation”
Shepard became not just a saint, he was manipulated to be a tool. He was instrumentalized to castigate opponents of the gay agenda and to advance federal and state hate-crimes legislation. We were told endlessly that Wyoming and many other states, along with the federal government, did not protect homosexuals from such hate-crimes.
Even before Shepard died, President Bill Clinton used his attack to advance federal legislation. “I was deeply grieved by the act of violence perpetrated against Matthew Shepard,” Clinton said. “There is nothing more important to this country than our standing together against intolerance, prejudice and violent bigotry.” Take that Family Research Council. When a federal hate crimes bill was later signed by President Obama, it was named for Matthew Shepard.
And not just in politics, the gods of popular culture have lauded Shepard. Elton John sang to raise money for the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Lady Gaga sang John Lennon’s “Imagine” and rewrote the lyrics to include, “Imagine there’s no Heaven, it’s easy if you try, no hell below us, and only Matthew in the sky [emphasis added].”The Laramie Project, one of three made-for-TV movies about his life and death, is now a road show. It will appear in Washington, D.C. in the coming days.
Jiminez’s book utterly changes the narrative, not just about Shepard’s life but also his death. Will these new revelations in any way change the cult of Matthew? They ought to, but they probably won’t. What will likely happen is that the gay establishment will castigate Jiminez, and the business of St. Matthew Shepard Inc. will continue unabated.
But the inconvenient facts remain. Matthew was not killed by gay bias, gay hatred, or by the religious right. He was killed by a sometimes sex partner who wanted his drugs. This was known at the time and ignored. And why not? After all, a martyr would be a terrible thing to waste.