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How the world got the Matthew Shepard story wrong (and why it doesn’t matter)

How the world got the Matthew Shepard story wrong (and why it doesn’t matter)

How did Matthew Shepard become the symbol for homophobic hate crimes?

Does it matter there is far more to the Matthew Shepard story?

Perhaps. But, like with anything in history, it’s consigned to the simple nature of what people can remember.

We know of that angelic-looking gay student accepting a ride from a couple of young men 20 years ago. Those homophobic thugs beat him, pistol-whipped him, robbed him, and tied him to a fence in the freezing cold in Laramie, Wyoming.  He died six days later.

The hate crime triggered a burgeoning acceptance of homosexuality in the 90s. His parents, Judy and Dennis, set up a foundation in their son’s name that has helped thousands of people. The Laramie Project, a play telling the story of Matthew, has toured worldwide.

And finally, in 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, also known as the Matthew Shepard Act, into law.

Matthew did not die in vain. His life, his death, and his name changed hearts and minds.

No one can ever say Matthew’s death didn’t change the world. Or that the killing of Matthew, how torturous and evil it was, was not horrific.

Some have also alleged Matthew Shepard was a drug-addicted rent boy who may have slept with one of his killers.

Was the Matthew Shepard story told to the world wrong? 

Stephen Jimenez, who spent 13 years interviewing more than 100 people with a connection to the case, outlined his theory. It was not a hate crime, he believes, but a drug deal gone wrong.

In the book, The Book of Matt, he extensively explores this rumor.

Jimenez claimed the killers knew Matthew had access to a shipment of crystal meth with a street value of $10,000 which they wanted to steal.

The author also claimed Matthew slept with one of his killers, both forcibly pimped out by an unknown drug supplier.

Critics widely discredited these claims when the book was released five years ago.

Culture reviewer Alyssa Rosenberg derided the book as ‘ego-driven’, ‘manufactured’ and ‘exceptionally shoddy’.

‘Jimenez desperately wants to be seen as a brave social commentator and reporter,’ she writes.

‘Instead, his chosen language and the structure of his book makes him come across like an outdated gossip.’

Jimenez came up with his own (possibly false) version of history.

Killers of Matthew Shepard told their own story

In court, Matthew’s killers had their own story.

Charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping and aggravated robbery, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson faced the death penalty.

It was agreed the two met Matthew in a gay-friendly karaoke bar. Aaron said, in a police interview, he had identified Matthew as a robbery target and pretended to be gay to lure him out to their truck.

During the trial, the defense lawyers repeatedly insisted it was not a homophobic hate crime but a robbery gone wrong.

However, Aaron’s lawyer did attempt to put forward a gay panic defense.  They argued Aaron was driven to ‘temporary insanity’ by alleged sexual advances by Matthew. The judge rejected this feeble attempt from the lawyer. Aaron was also said to have had ‘homosexual experiences’, although this may have been an attempt to seem less bigoted.

Matthew’s parents agreed to allow Aaron and Russell to serve two life sentences instead of facing the death penalty. Matthew’s father, Dennis, said he didn’t want Aaron to become a symbol for anti-death penalty advocates.

‘I would like nothing better than to see you die Mr McKinney, but now is the time to heal,’ Matthew’s father, Dennis, said at the formal sentencing.

‘Every time you wake up in your cell, remember you had the opportunity or the ability to stop your actions that night.’

‘Mr McKinney, you will not become a symbol,’ Dennis continued. ‘Just a miserable symbol and a more miserable end. That’s fine with me.’

While Aaron did not become a symbol, Matthew did.

How Matthew Shepard became a symbol for hate crimes in America

After his death, he became a symbol for hate crimes in America.

The day Matthew died, President Bill Clinton told journalists at the White House: ‘In our shock and grief one thing must remain clear: hate and prejudice are not American values.’

But Matthew had already gone through so much.

At 18 years old, he was gang raped while on holiday with three friends in Morocco. After the assault, he suffered flashbacks, panic attacks, paranoia, depression and anxiety.

In his junior year of high school, Matthew moved with his affluent family to Saudi Arabia. As there were no American high schools there, he graduated from one in Switzerland.

By the time he became a political science major at Laramie University, he spoke three languages. He said he wanted to be a human rights advocate.

But Matthew’s grades fell as he suffered from depression. Matthew was hospitalized several times for suicidal ideation and drug abuse.

It was only after he died that his mother discovered Matthew was HIV positive. Jimenez, in his highly disputed book, claimed he was a rent boy.

Matthew Shepard: Symbols vs Reality

Let’s be clear that drug addiction, poor mental health and being HIV positive does not make you a bad person. And even if he did engage in prostitution, a still uncertain claim, sex workers also deserve love and respect.

It is an uncomfortable truth that, as LGBTI people, we have to reassure the mainstream in order to further our rights. To fight for same-sex marriage, you put a vanilla, loving couple who have dated for decades on television. You could choose a couple that have known each other for a month, 30 years age difference between them, who want to have a kinky commitment ceremony in lieu of a more ‘traditional’ wedding in suits and ties. But it doesn’t happen.

Would be it nice if either couple could persuade the public? Absolutely.

As queer people, we know every couple deserves the same rights. But to achieve it, we have to ingratiate ourselves. And for that, we need symbols.

Matthew had everything the movement needed to further the cause: he was white, blond, cute, and was victim of a horrifying crime.

There were thousands of homophobic hate crimes in the same year Matthew was murdered. Think how many trans women are murdered today with barely a mention in the mainstream news.

The world didn’t need to know the grittier details. Matthew was sold as a model minority. His mental health, his HIV status, and his drug abuse could have all been used by homophobes to attack his legacy. Many would say it’s just best to leave that out of accepted history.

The benefits of accepting history

You likely know the story of Rosa Parks. Rosa was arrested for refusing to give up her seat for a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama on 1 December, 1955.

But what about this part of the tale? Nine months earlier, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for resisting bus segregation in the same city.

A lot of sources say Claudette’s arrest was not widely publicized because the NAACP didn’t think she was an ideal figure to be the face of the movement.

Claudette became pregnant while unmarried shortly after her arrest. She was unable to hold down a job and later moved to New York.

Later, Claudette said Rosa had ‘the right hair and the right look’ to be the icon.

Rosa’s resistance worked, and segregation on the buses ended.

Did it matter there was far more to the Rosa Parks story? No. Because, ultimately, the strategy served its purpose.

Matthew’s truth will never be truly known. But undoubtedly he was a complex, passionate, flawed person – like all humans are. He wasn’t an angel, or a symbol, he was just himself. He suffered so much in his short 21 years of life.

It doesn’t matter the world didn’t know these details. The story told is the one that got accepted into history. And it worked to help get us all to where we are today.

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