The “Wildfire” After Matthew Shepard’s Murder

In today’s video from Book Of Matt author Stephen Jimenez, he details how the hate-crime narrative of Shepard’s murder took hold as fast as it did, noting the easy symbolism, frequently inaccurate media reports and how at that moment in 1998, both the gay community and president Clinton were under siege:

Responding via our Facebook page, a reader points out that the reaction to Shepard’s murder was not without historical precedent:

As someone who’s researched historical tragedy, memory and memory construction, I can see how the accepted narrative of Matthew was created. Often when societies and communities are dealt blows like what happened in 1998, we collectively go through a process of grieving and attempt to form some sort of meaning. This meaning usually leads to the construction of a narrative of purpose.

Essentially, these are answers to the . The end part of this narrative is usually [about] what can we do to stop this from occurring again. These can be calls to action or denouncements of occurrences, and there are often many different and competing narratives. Usually one sticks though, and often it’s the one with the most mass appeal, and [this] is what I believe occurred [in the case of Shepard]. This has happened countless times through out our history. We over-simplify stories, often glossing over the actual facts in favor of an easier and [more] usable form of history. Pick an event or person and history, and you can see this process at play. The Revolutionary War and the various cults surrounding certain american presidents are prime examples.

I understand – but I’m not so forgiving of the journalists and activists involved. The utter lack of curiosity, the damning of those (like yours truly) who raised some flags about the incident, the lock-step identity politics mantra about “hate-crimes”, and the simply shameless exploitation of the event for fund-raising to pass redundant hate crime laws truly made me sick to my stomach.

One part of the context is that the biggest gay rights lobby, the Human Rights Campaign, was fiercely opposed to dealing with marriage equality at the time, committed to a paradigm of gay victimhood, and was still living with the rank failure to pass federal employment non-discrimination laws (still not passed!). The federal hate crime law package was a product shaped and designed by pollsters and marketers to raise money, and make HRC seem relevant. Nothing was allowed to get in the way of the countless direct mail pitches urging gays to give money to HRC – or somehow be complicit in a brutal murder of a gay man. It is not good enough, I believe, simply to say: we were wrong but it served the purpose of advancing hate crime laws, so the truth is pretty much irrelevant. No civil rights movement based on untruth deserves to win.

In Kenneth S. Stern’s response to the Book Of Matt, he makes a similar point:

Five years before the Shepard murder, I wrote a report on the Academy Award-nominated film “Liberators.” The film’s premise was that a segregated military unit — the all-African American 761st Tank Battalion — had liberated both the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps. The film came out when Black-Jewish relations were particularly strained, in the aftermath of the Crown Heights riots. This was a healing story, and leaders from both communities saw the value in promoting it. Except that it wasn’t true.

While this unit was heroic and deserved to be celebrated for what it accomplished during the Second World War (despite the raw bigotry its members suffered), it was nowhere near either camp. The film’s producers were interested in a good story, not a correct one. And when the film was pulled from PBS because of concerns about its factual inaccuracies, some supporters of the film complained that the facts didn’t really matter.

But the facts did matter, even though Holocaust deniers exploited the film’s problems for their own purposes. Most insistent on the truth were the members of the 761st — they had their history denied first by prejudice, and then by political distortion. They only wanted to be acknowledged and remembered for what they did, not what they didn’t do.

The Book Of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard comes out next week (pre-order it here). From Kirkus’ summary of the book:

An award-winning journalist uncovers the suppressed story behind the death of Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student whose 1998 murder rocked the nation. Jimenez was a media “Johnny-come-lately” when he arrived in Laramie in 2000 to begin work on the Shepard story. His fascination with the intricate web of secrets surrounding Shepard’s murder and eventual elevation to the status of homosexual martyr developed into a 13-year investigative obsession. The tragedy was “enshrined…as passion play and folktale, but hardly ever for the truth of what it was”: the story of a troubled young man who had died because he had been involved with Laramie’s drug underworld rather than because he was gay.

Drawing on both in-depth research and exhaustive interviews with more than 100 individuals around the United States, Jimenez meticulously re-examines both old and new information about the murder and those involved with it. Everyone had something to hide. For Aaron McKinney, one of the two men convicted of Shepard’s murder, it was the fact that he was Shepard’s part-time bisexual lover and fellow drug dealer. For Shepard, it was that he was an HIV-positive substance abuser with a fondness for crystal meth and history of sexual trauma. Even the city of Laramie had its share of dark secrets that included murky entanglements involving law enforcement officials and the Laramie drug world.

So when McKinney and his accomplices claimed that it had been unwanted sexual advances that had driven him to brutalize Shepard, investigators, journalists and even lawyers involved in the murder trial seized upon the story as an example of hate crime at its most heinous. As Jimenez deconstructs an event that has since passed into the realm of mythology, he humanizes it. The result is a book that is fearless, frank and compelling. Investigative journalism at its relentless and compassionate best.

Steve’s previous videos are here. Our full video archive is here.