We all know the story of Matthew Shepard. Problem is, the story we know might be a little different than the truth.
In Laramie, Wyoming, on October 6, 1998, Shepard was “lured” by two “strangers” to a remote area where he was tortured, beaten to death, and displayed grotesquely on a fence. He was found a day later and succumbed to his wounds in a local hospital.
The two “strangers,” Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, were charged with Shepard’s murder, and, indeed, a bloody gun along with some of Shepard’s belongings (including his wallet) found in their truck cinched convictions and life sentences.
McKinney and Henderson claimed that they panicked when Shepard, a homosexual, made advances on them and killed him in a rage. This made it a pretty cut-and-dried hate crime as well as a case of exceptionally violent homophobia, and Shepard has since become, in the words of Austin Ruse, a “secular saint.” Ruse continued:
“His killing became a kind of gay Passion Play where he suffered and died for the cause of homosexuality against the growing homophobia and hatred of gay America.”
But what if the narrative we’ve accepted for 15 years is false? Though it is undoubtedly true that McKinney and Henderson are murderers, what if Matthew Shepard isn’t a gay martyr?
According to The Book of Matt written by investigative journalist Stephen Jiminez, Shepard’s sexual orientation, though long the central linchpin in the popular narrative, might have been a pretty incidental concern to the young man’s killers rather than their core motivation.
Jimenez interviewed 100 people over several years, including Shepard’s friends, friends of the killers, and the killers themselves. The information gleaned from these interviews provides a startlingly different narrative: One in which Shepard is a meth dealer in which one of his killers was a customer and occasional lover and in which his murder was over a stash of methamphetamine that he was withholding from them.
Of course, this version of the story is not going over so well with countless foundations, charities, and advocacy groups set up in Shepard’s name. The Matthew Shepard Foundation released this statement condemning Jimenez’ new book:
Attempts now to rewrite the story of this hate crime appear to be based on untrustworthy sources, factual errors, rumors and innuendo rather than the actual evidence gathered by law enforcement and presented in a court of law. We do not respond to innuendo, rumor or conspiracy theories. Instead we recommit ourselves to honoring Matthew’s memory, and refuse to be intimidated by those who seek to tarnish it. We owe that to the tens of thousands of donors, activists, volunteers, and allies to the cause of equality who have made our work possible.
And we’d happily leave it at that as well, at least for now. Except that some in the gay community seem to take the new narrative pretty seriously. In point of fact, Jimenez himself is an award-winning journalist and a homosexual.
Aaron Hicklin of The Advocate (one of the country’s leading gay publications) was also fairly persuaded by the new account, writing that Jimenez “amassed enough anecdotal evidence to build a persuasive case that Shepard’s sexuality was, if not incidental, certain less central than popular consensus had lead us to believe.”
But interestingly, Hicklin also concludes:
“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.”
Do you think that the Matthew Shepard narrative could be false?