What difference, at this point, will the truth make?
There are few cultural icons whose life and death story carry the weight of Matthew Shepard.
The story is well-known. A young gay man in Laramie, Wyoming was lured from a bar by two strangers who took him to a remote area and brutally beat him because of hatred of gays, leaving him strapped to a fence barely alive in a virtual crucifixion. He later died of his injuries.
One result of the brutal homophobic murder was the Matthew Shepard / James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act, signed into law in 2009. As described by the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign in 2011:
Thirteen years ago today, Matthew Shepard was attacked in a brutal hate crime. Five days later, his young life was cruelly snuffed out by this act of anti-gay hatred. However, the tremendous strength and courage of his parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, together with a galvanized community, did not allow Matthew’s death to be in vain.
After over a decade of relentless work, on October 28, 2009, the Shepards witnessed President Obama sign the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law. This landmark legislation, the first federal civil rights law to explicitly protect the LGBT community, provides new tools to law enforcement to help ensure that hate crimes are investigated and prosecuted.
In a companion post, Laurel documents how deeply this story of Shepard’s death has permeated the culture, politics and education system.
But what if the central narrative of this story was false? What if Shepard was not killed out of anti-gay hatred, but by a gay lover over a methampetamin deal gone bad? What if the “gay panic” defense raised by one of the murderers was just a ruse raised before Shepard was even dead in order to cover up the meth aspect?
At the criminal culpability level, it makes no difference. Murder is murder.
At the cultural and civil rights level, it makes all the difference, as Andrew Sullivan notes:
The truth about the story, in all its complications, is set forth in a book by Stephen Jimenez, The Book of Matt, which I have had a chance to review.
Jimenez has a long history of journalistic achievements and credentials. Jimenez spent 13 years researching the facts, speaking to hundreds of people and reviewing a virtual mountain of evidence. It should make no difference that Jimenez is openly gay, his research stands on its own, but in such a politicized case, the same book written by someone else may have been met with a different reaction.
As Sullivan’s tweet above reflects, the book has been met with a sobering assessment that the enormity of the Matthew Shepard civil rights narrative may be wrong. Sullivan conducted a series of interviews with Jimemez, which are here. Some of them are embedded at the bottom of this post.
In this interview Jimenez explains The Role Of Meth In Matthew Shepard’s Murder. At 4:05 of the video Jimenez details how Shepard was murdered in connection with a Meth shipment deal gone bad:
The book review in Kirkus Review summarizes the findings:
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.
Aaron Hicklin in Out Magazine notes the implications of Jimenez’s research, Have We Got Matthew Shepard All Wrong?:
What if nearly everything you thought you knew abut Matthew Shepard’s murder was wrong? What if our most dearly held assumptions about the circumstances of that fatal night, October 6, 1998, had obscured other, more critical, aspects to the case? How do people sold on one version of history react to being told that facts are slippery, and that just because we think of Shepard’s murder as a hate crime does not make it a hate crime.
Scroll through Laurel’s post. See how deeply the false narrative has permeated the culture. Song, movies, politics, everywhere. That false narrative is being taught in schools and colleges.
The false narrative will not be corrected. Too many are invested in it. But at least the record has been set straight, by Stephen Jimenez.
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