Stephen Jimenez’s 2013 book punctured a formative political narrative resulting in personal attacks on the author. His new edition brings the research forward to the present, and shows why the truth matters.
In 2013, we wrote a series of posts about the 1998 death of Matthew Shepard, a death widely described as an anti-gay hate crime, resulting in federal legislation, The The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, 18 U.S.C. § 249.
The occasion of our series of posts was the publication of a book by author Stephen Jimenez, The Book of Matt, which called into question the narrative of the death as an anti-gay hate crime.
On September 22, 2013, I wrote about Jimenez’s book and research, The Matthew Shepard anti-gay hate crime narrative may be all wrong:
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….
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:
* * *
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.
Whenever a fundamental narrative of a case is questioned — see also Michael Brown and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement — the reaction can be brutal, based not on the facts but on political necessity of self-preservation.
Jimenez went through a lot of that, as then LI author Laurel Conrad documented, Attacking the messenger to preserve the Matthew Shepard Hate Crime Narrative.
Jimenez has a new edition of The Book of Matt, that includes a new chapter which brings the story up to the present. The new edition has a new Introduction by Andrew Sullivan, separately available on Medium. Here are excerpts from the new Introduction:
There’s a phrase sometimes credited to George Orwell or Randolph Hearst (no one quite knows the real source) that most professionals in the newspaper business hold as something of a sacred definition of their trade: “Journalism is publishing something someone doesn’t want you to print; all the rest is public relations.”
If I were to describe this tight, closely reported and engrossing account of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in one word, it would be: journalism.
No one wanted Steve Jimenez to report this story, let alone go back and back to Laramie, Wyoming, asking awkward questions, puzzling over strange discrepancies, re-interviewing sources, seeking a deeper, more complex truth about the ghastly killing than America, it turned out, was prepared to hear. It was worse than that, actually. Not only did no one want to hear more about it, but many were incensed that the case was being re-examined at all. Considerable political forces, including much of the gay and lesbian establishment and mainstream press, attempted to prevent this story from getting wider attention; they targeted Jimenez’s reputation as a journalist; and they insisted that all the myriad details in this book were concocted or invented. All of it was fabricated, they claimed, a “conspiracy theory”, while refusing to refute specific facts or details that Jimenez had uncovered. And Steve as a gay man was subjected to even more calumny: that he was a traitor to the cause, advancing the interests of the antigay haters and bigots by giving them some reason to debunk the heinous crime.
The truth, you see, was already out there. It was crystal clear, and carried a simple message: that hate is everywhere in America, especially in red states, and every member of a minority is under constant danger of being attacked, or even killed. And the narrative was gripping and horrifying, something out of a horror movie…. The message was particularly useful for gay rights groups like the Human Rights Campaign, whose fundraising sky-rocketed in the wake of the shocking murder.
But it wasn’t true. The story, as you will read in these pages, is far darker, murkier and revealing than a classic hate crime. Re-reading this book years later, it seems to me that the murder had absolutely nothing to do with homophobia. It involved rather what was then a growing scourge of crystal meth use among both the rural poor and the gay male community at the turn of the century — and the murder of a young gay man in rural Wyoming was a classic case of where the two meth populations met and overlapped…. For gay men in 1998, meth was a far, far greater danger than redneck strangers. And it still is. But we decided to focus on what was acceptable to speak about, rather than what was staring us, more embarrassingly, in the face….
So we now have the body of Matthew Shepard interred, like a martyr to homophobia, at the National Cathedral in Washington DC. And you begin to understand how saints are indeed made: by legend, and by orthodoxy. What Jimenez has done is to peer behind this facade and tell us the awful, messy, tragic, human truth. It seems to me we can honor the memory of Matthew Shepard by refusing to lie about him anymore. And this book is a start.
I reached out to Jimenez for comment and an update. Here is what he provided.
There are new interviews and videos at: www.facebook.com/bookofmatt
The conclusive new chapter I wrote, “Ghosts of Laramie,” examines the long-term consequences of the corrosive meth epidemic that began to flourish around the time of Matthew Shepard’s 1998 murder. Since The Book of Matt was first published, key sources have died from drug-related causes. A couple were still in their thirties. What is absolutely certain now is that the Shepard tragedy was a convergence of two devastating crises: a meth epidemic in rural America and a parallel crisis in the gay community. So what did we lose by hiding those truths at the time?
The new chapter also delves into another murder related to Shepard’s — the rape and killing of Cindy Dixon. Dixon was the mother of Russell Henderson, one of the men convicted in the Shepard case. She was killed while her son was awaiting trial — by another meth dealer with ties to Shepard’s killer Aaron McKinney.
With the passage of time, more people have become receptive to the complexities surrounding Matthew Shepard’s murder. But there are still those who cling to the divisive, politically correct mythology manufactured by the media and special interests.
The only real way to honor Shepard’s memory is to tell the truth about his life and the tangled circumstances that led to his death. Anything less is a fable at best — and at worst a form of propaganda.
I don’t claim any independent research on Shepard’s death. But it’s a sad sign of the times that research puncturing formative political narratives results not in debate on the merits, but personal attacks on the author.
The Truth Matters.DONATE
Donations tax deductible
to the full extent allowed by law.