The Myth of Matt

A gay journalist challenges the tale of the supposed gay martyr, Matthew Shepard.

Almost exactly fifteen years ago, Matthew Shepard, 21, a gay college student, was horrifically beaten by two presumed anti-gay bigots and left for dead, tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. Overnight, Shepard became a martyred icon of homophobic violence and a propulsive force for the enactment of hate crime legislation. Everyone knows, or thinks they know, these broad strokes of the terrible tale – but self-described “gay, liberal” journalist Stephen Jimenez says that what everyone knows isn’t the whole story.

Upon hearing of Shepard’s fate, two friends immediately contacted a gay reporter and local gay organizations, and the national media ran with it from there. “Once it started,” said prosecutor Cal Rerucha, “it took off like wildfire,” though he later acknowledged to Jimenez that “I don’t think the proof [of a hate crime] was there.” The news media quickly fell into a uniform account of the crime and the motive behind it.

The perpetrators Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson (purportedly strangers to Shepard) were ultimately convicted of kidnapping, aggravated robbery, and second-degree murder – but not of a hate crime, which was not on the books in Wyoming at the time. Nonetheless, Shepard’s death brought national and international attention and sympathy to the issue of hate crimes, and the Matthew Shepard Act, which President Obama signed into law in 2009, became the wedge pushing an expansion of legislation dealing with crimes against victims for their gender or sexual orientation. Shepard’s story has since been engraved in the public consciousness in songs, plays, movies, documentaries, and books.

Now comes The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard, in which Jimenez details his thirteen-year investigation that covered twenty states and more than a hundred interviews, and in which he had privileged access to previously unavailable documents and information. He initially went to Laramie in 2000 to research the story of the murder, after McKin­ney and Henderson were sentenced to life without parole. His aim was to write a screenplay to dramatize what he, like the rest of the nation, believed to be a clearcut incident of vicious bigotry. But what Jimenez gradually uncovered in that “tight-knit, somewhat incestuous” town was layer upon layer of ugly secrets and potentially myth-busting revelations about the relationship between Shepard and his killers, and their involvement in the deadly underworld of methamphetamine trafficking.

From the beginning, Jimenez met with resistance about pursuing his politically sensitive angle of the story. The familiar argument he heard was, “let slumbering truths lie when so much good has been accomplished in Matthew’s name.” Shepard was the Emmett Till of gay rights, he was told. But Jimenez felt that “clinging to a partly false mythology could never yield the subtler, more powerful meanings of his sacrifice,” and it “would be a disservice to Matthew’s memory to freeze him in time as a symbol, having stripped away his complexities and frailties as a human being.”

Jimenez had actually co-produced a controversial 2004 20/20 segment on the murder which, like the new book, challenged “the widely accepted scenario of an innocent gay man targeted for robbery and murder by two homophobic strangers because he made a pass at them.” But even the network refused to air certain revelations it deemed too “editorially explosive” – revelations that not only was Aaron McKinney not unknown to Shepard, but that he was a bisexual hustler who had partied on numerous occasions with Shepard and actually had sex with him in exchange for drugs and money.

According to Jimenez, McKinney wanted no one to know this, and was worried that his girlfriend would leave with their child, so his attorneys went with the “gay panic” defense. McKinney later admitted privately to Jimenez that the story “was a lie and that Matthew coming on to him sexually was not the source of his murderous rage.” McKinney, Henderson, and McKinney’s girlfriend, who helped conceal drug paraphernalia evidence after the crime, all confessed to Jimenez that they covered up a drug robbery motive.

The book pursues an angle that both law enforcement and the mainstream media only halfheartedly, if at all, addressed – the surprisingly active meth trade in Wyoming, and McKinney’s and Shepard’s connection to it. Jimenez was told that local cops themselves were as involved with drugs as the citizens were, and that two key cops even consistently denied to the media that drugs were a factor in the murder. As for the media: “the few journalists who had attempted to examine [Shepard’s] life in more than a summary fashion had been hindered in their efforts by sealed court records and witnesses who had been ordered to remain silent.”

Unsurprisingly, The Book of Matt has drawn fire from the radical left, who are determined to protect a very useful narrative about the supposedly violent, homophobic underbelly of America, a narrative they use to smear conservatives who object to the concept of hate crimes itself. Think Progress called the new book “dreadful,” attacked Jimenez personally for his “vainglory,” and attempted to discredit his sources. Media Matters jumped on the “right-wing media” for “celebrating” Jimenez’s book.

But The Advocate acknowledged that Jimenez “amassed enough anecdotal evidence to build a persuasive case that Shepard’s sexuality was, if not incidental, certainly less central than popular consensus has lead us to believe.” It goes on to say, with stunning candor, that “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… [emphasis added] 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.”

Yet others rush to denounce Jimenez’s version as victimizing Matthew Shepard all over again and tacitly giving ammunition to the right. A different Advocate op-ed, for example, decries The Book of Matt author’s “trutherism” and complains that “Jimenez wants to tell the ‘real story’ of Matt’s murder. But to what end? For what purpose?”

For what purpose? Well, to know the truth would be a nice start, but apparently that’s not a high priority for many. Examining the degree to which a hatred of gays actually played any part in the vicious murder is not to excuse the terrible crime itself, though many will leap to that assumption. To attempt to lay bare the facts is not to smear Matthew Shepard or exonerate Aaron McKinney (it’s not clear that Russell Henderson took part in the beating), nor is it to suggest that Shepard deserved to die. The goal is simply to know the truth and to accept it for what it is, rather than exploit it politically one way or another. Until we can all agree on that simple aim, Matthew Shepard’s story may always remain shrouded in myth.

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