There are numerous hagiographies on the Matthew Shepard murder. Tewnty years after his slaying, they are being challenged. Are we ready for the tale journalist Stephen Jimenez, himself gay, spins?
I had the pleasure of meeting him at his book reading in the Harvard Coop this month. Referring to his book, I told Stephen that perhaps it is easier to kill the messenger (him) than hear his message.
Jimenez’s message in The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard upends a canonized narrative we all have grown familiarly comfortable with, irrespective of its sensation-alized macabre details.
Jimenez posits that Shepard’s murder had nothing to do with his sexual orientation but rather his involvement in the deadly underworld of Laramie’s crystal methamphetamine drug trafficking. Jimenez writes that Shepard was not only a user, but was also a courier who had plans just before his death to drive shipments of meth.
“I learned that Matthew had been a user of meth. And from everything I was able to trace, Matthew got into meth in a serious way, when he was living in Denver, before he moved to Laramie. He moved to Laramie in the summer of 1998. I ended up meeting and interviewing several friends of Matthew. One of them, Tina Labrie, talked about the fact that, you know, Matthew mentioned to her that each time he moved to a new place that he would try to leave the drug world behind, but he found himself getting pulled back in,” Jimenez stated in a recent interview with Rachel Martin of “Weekend Edition” from NPR, reflecting on the anniversary of Shepard’s murder.
In a 2004 episode of the television newsmagazine show 20/20, investigative journalist Elizabeth Vargas also reported that money and drugs motivated Shepard killers’ actions and not homophobia. And now with Jimenez’s incontrovertible evidence that Shepard’s murderers were not strangers – one is a bisexual crystal meth addict who not only knew Matthew, but also partied, bought drugs from, and had sex with Matthew. With this “new” information, a more textured but troubling truth emerges.
This truth shatters a revered icon for GLBT rights, one deliberately chosen because of race, gender, and economic background.
“Matthew Shepard’s status as a gay everyman was determined – first by the media, then by gay-rights groups – with little knowledge of who he was. He looked like an attractive, angelic, white college student from the heart of conservative America,” Gabriel Arana wrote in her 2009 piece “The Deification of Matthew Shepard: What the gay-rights movement has lost by making Shepard its icon.”
The anointing of Matthew Shepard as an iconic image for GLBT rights not only concealed from the American public the real person, but it also hid the other varied faces of hate crimes in the 1990s. For example, in 1998, the year Matthew was murdered, the country saw the worst form of social intolerance since the McCarthy witch-hunts and the lynching of a 14-year-old African-American boy named Emmett Till of Chicago.
In the small remote town of Jasper, in East Texas, an unemployed vacuum cleaner salesman named James Byrd, Jr. was walking home from a party along Highway 96 and was offered a ride. Little did he know that he would be chained to the back of a truck and dragged by his ankles to his death – simply because he was black.
During the summer months of 1998, the country was hit with the explosion of “ex-gay” ministry ads that appeared in major newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today. The ads were sponsored by a coalition of 15 right-wing Christian organizations calling all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people to convert to heterosexuality. The ads stated: “Please, if you, or someone you know or love is struggling with homosexuality, show them this story. If you truly love someone, you’ll tell them the truth. And, the truth that God loves them could just be the truth that sets them free.”
And then in October of that year, we heard the deadly news coming from Laramie, Wyoming. This time, the victim was Shepard, 21. While a nation cried out in horror over the brutal killing of Matthew Shepard, the 1993 murder of Teena Brandon, a 21-year-old white Nebraskan transgender man (the inspiration for the 1999 movie Boys Don’t Cry) went unnoticed. As did untold numbers of hate crimes against GLBT people of color that were unreported in mainstream papers, and rarely saw the light of day in queer ones as well.
In reading Jimenez’s book, we shockingly learn that Matthew Shepard’s Gay Icon story is a fictive narrative. Some would empathically argue it is good to be politically canonized in order to push for needed legislative changes in the protection and understanding of GLBT Americans.
The fruit of the Shepard narrative includes The Matthew Shepard Foundation, The Laramie Project, TV movie The Matthew Shepard Story, The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, mostly known as the Matthew Shepard Act, and Jason Collins, the first openly gay African American professional baller, who, during the 2012-13 NBA season, deliberately wore the number “98” on his jersey to honor Shepard.
Not bad, some would say, for a story built on a lie.
The cultural currency of the Shepard narrative’s shelf life, however, might now after nearly two decades be flickering out, or it is now of no use to its framers and the community it was intended to serve.
“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,” Aaron Hicklin, editor-in-chief of Out Magazine wrote in his Advocate piece “Have We Got Matthew Shepard All Wrong?”
I read Jimenez’s The Book of Matt as a cautionary tale of how the needs of a community trumped the truth of a story.