Challenging The Myth Of Matthew Shepard

In today’s video, Stephen Jimenez explains how his personal experience as a gay man and survivor of the AIDS epidemic informed his approach to The Book Of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard, as well as why he thinks the gay community should be ready to embrace the complexity of Shepard’s life and death:

In Out editor Aaron Hicklin’s review of The Book Of Matt, he compares the aftermath of Shepard’s murder to another landmark moment in the gay rights movement:

There are valuable reasons for telling certain stories in a certain way at pivotal times, but that doesn’t mean we have to hold on to them once they’ve outlived their usefulness. In his book, Flagrant Conduct, Dale Carpenter, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, similarly unpicks the notorious case of Lawrence v. Texas, in which the arrest of two men for having sex in their own bedroom became a vehicle for affirming the right of gay couples to have consensual sex in private. Except that the two men were not having sex, and were not even a couple. Yet this non-story, carefully edited and taken all the way to the Supreme Court, changed America.

In different ways, the Shepard story we’ve come to embrace was just as necessary for shaping the history of gay rights as Lawrence v. Texas; it galvanized a generation of LGBT youth and stung lawmakers into action. President Obama, who signed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, named for Shepard and James Byrd Jr., into law on October 28, 2009, credited Judy Shepard for making him “passionate” about LGBT equality.

There are obvious reasons why advocates of hate crime legislation must want to preserve one particular version of the Matthew Shepard story, but it was always just that — a version. Jimenez’s version is another, more studiously reported account[.]

Of course, if, like me, you oppose hate crime laws altogether, you will not feel so comfortable watching interest groups deploy a politically c0nvenient myth about Shepard to raise gobs of money and pass unnecessary laws (Shepard’s killers were prosecuted and jailed in a state with no hate crime laws, proving their pointlessness even in what appeared to be an extreme case). Pounding complicated crimes into a simple rubric of the crudest homophobia is a very ethically dubious project, if only because you are effectively using a tragedy to further political goals. That remains true even if your motives were entirely good ones, as they obviously were for many who believed what their understandable emotions told them to believe.

Dreher sees the myth of Shepard as an understandable case of confirmation bias:

The first casualty of war is truth. It’s also the first casualty of culture war. The phenomenon Jimenez dissects in The Book Of Matt is one that longtime readers will know is important to me: how we know what we know, and how our desire to believe a certain narrative that comforts or justifies us leads us to accept as true things that are not, or that are at least far more ambiguous than we think.

The story of Matthew Shepard as a martyr struck a deeply resonant chord within many gays and their supporters in the media, who created the hagiography and, as this review acknowledges, was fiercely defended by leading gay activists in the face of contrary evidence reported at the time. The thing is, I wouldn’t be quick to accuse these activists and their media allies to have been conscious liars. I know what it’s like to want to believe something so badly that you close your mind to the possibility that things aren’t what they appear to be — and, in turn, you conceal your motives from yourself. This describes the way I responded to 9/11 with regard to the case for the Iraq War, though I didn’t recognize it until years later. There were liberals and a minority among conservatives — including the founders of this magazine — who didn’t buy the pro-war narrative. People like me considered them gutless, or, infamously, “unpatriotic.” We did not grasp the extent to which we were captive to confirmation bias. We thought we were seeing things with perfect lucidity. But we were very wrong.

This is not a left-wing or a right-wing thing. It is not a gay or straight thing, it is not a religious versus atheist thing. It’s a human thing. …

Strictly speaking, the case for gay rights and same-sex marriage does not depend on the martyrdom of Matthew Shepard. Nor did the case for civil rights for black Americans depend on things like the bombing of the Atlanta church 50 years ago yesterday, a horrifying example of terrorism, one that killed four little girls at Sunday school. It takes stories, though, to make abstract arguments breathe and bleed. In this regard, Matthew Shepard’s murder was the 9/11 of the gay rights movement. And the official story was probably a lie, we now learn from a gay journalist who, if [Hicklin’s] review in The Advocate accurately describes his book, valued journalism more than the Cause.

The Book Of Matt comes out next week (pre-order it here). 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.