"Hate Crime" Storytelling

Matthew Shepard Was a Victim in More Ways Than People Think

On Friday, October 26th, 2018, Matthew Shepard's ashes were interred at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., twenty years after he had been brutally beaten and left for dead in Laramie, Wyoming, at age 21.

By most accounts, a shy but friendly youth, of slight build and clean cut, Matthew was openly gay, and the 1998 incident immediately became a flashpoint in the cultural drive for gay acceptance nationwide. "This is what I was trying to stop," said Ellen DeGeneres through tears at a national candlelight vigil for him in Washington, D.C. "Right now, homosexuals are the target of, at the very least, discrimination—at the very worst hate and violence. So I am begging heterosexuals to see this as a wakeup call to help us end the hate." From the south lawn of the White House, President Bill Clinton said, "I hope that in the grief of this moment … Americans will once again search their hearts and do what they can to reduce their own fear and anxiety and anger at people who are different. And I hope that Congress will pass the hate crimes legislation."

People were rightly horrified at what had been done to Matthew, and on one level the nationwide response spoke well of mainstream America. Something would be very wrong with us if we didn't recoil at such an abhorrent act. On the other hand, there was a dark side to the machinations that followed. As can often happen, the first story out wasn't the whole story.  

In early 2000, after the two killers had been sentenced to life in prison and the incident had fallen off the national radar, Stephen Jimenez set out to write a screenplay about it. As a gay man, he felt especially compelled to tell this story of Matthew being murdered by hate.

But Jimenez was also a fair-minded journalist. What he found on the ground in Laramie went well beyond the by-then well-known narrative. For one thing, Aaron McKinney, one of the convicted killers, also had a history of homosexual activities. That was a glaring disconnect from the hate crime narrative. Worse, Matthew himself had been in deep crisis by age 21. He had struggled for years with severe depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. As a teen, he had been sexually abused, on at least one occasion brutally, and he himself had been arrested for molesting two 8-year-old boys. And recently, he had fallen in with a "family" of methamphetamine traffickers. He had struggled desperately, not only with meth and heroin himself, but from fear of the drug underworld he was trying to escape. The circumstances surrounding his murder were bound up with that web, but that hadn't been mentioned in the reporting, either.

Jimenez also began to notice that certain details of the story were still being put forward years later, while others were being overlooked, if not suppressed. At one point, gay attorney Sean Patrick Maloney, counsel for the Matthew Shepard Foundation (founded by Matthew's parents after his death), pointedly advised Jimenez to "please tread lightly." "Matthew Shepard is to gay rights what Emmett Till was to the civil rights movement." (Lynched in 1955 Mississippi, 14-year-old Emmett Till became the face of the case for black civil rights. Think about the implications of Maloney's statement, here, before moving on too quickly.)

To his credit, Jimenez refused to go along with gay mythmaking at the expense of truth. He ended up spending thirteen years investigating Matthew's case, and the truth ended up being far more complicated than the myth. He lays out what he found in The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths about the Murder of Matthew Shepard. Some questions remain unanswered, but two things became irrefutably clear. Matthew Shepard wasn't hated, and he wasn't killed for being gay.

Of course, these things could not have been known at the time of Matthew's death, but lines between truth and narrative are negotiable for political opportunists. President Clinton issued his little sermonette on the day Matthew died, and the vigil followed two days later. Right from the start, it was assumed that Matthew had been murdered because he was gay, that fear and hatred of gays had been the motive, and that political change was the only way to stop it.

But think about what this "hate crime" messaging says to people who identify as gay: (1) you are hated, (2) your fate lies at the mercy of the political system, and (3) what happened to Matthew Shepard could happen to you. Here's the wakeup call that needs to be sounded: Anyone who wants to stop gays from being harassed can start by not telling stories about them that aren't true.

But for now, the myth lives on. Reporting on the internment, USA Today wrote, "Twenty years later, [Matthew's] name and story still carry the pain of discrimination." And twenty years later, the political opportunism carries on too. At the ceremony, gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson took a swipe at the current administration's policy of "violence" toward transgenders. At what purported to be a religious service, he told the congregation to "go vote," and they applauded. Apparently, there are no lines between politics and religion for political opportunists, either.

In any event, unlike his iconized predecessor Harvey Milk, Matthew Shepard wasn't a manipulator. But that hasn't stopped a manipulative movement from using his name or his murder for their own ends. After all, political opportunists do have their principles.

 is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

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