The Fall Of St. Matthew?

Posted on October 10, 2013 at 2:35 AM

By Dennis Stone

From the first time I heard about his horrific death, Matthew Shepard was a bit of an idol for me. I felt an affinity for him. Like me, he seemed to have been a skinny, shy and rather innocent gay guy, just looking for a bit of love in a big, often harsh world. Many other gay people, especially younger ones, were deeply affected by Matthew’s death. Several have told me of the seminal impact it had on their development and their perceptions of the world around them.

Over the years the name “Matthew Shepard” has come to mean more than just the name of a young gay murder victim. It has come to represent an entire generation of gays; it has come to symbolize the fear, loathing and violence that sometimes surrounds us; it has come to evoke the image of an almost mythological figure, the patron saint of our fight against the homophobia of the world.

Recently, however, a huge rock was hurled against the shrine I had built to Matthew in my imagination. On October 1, out gay journalist Stephen Jimenez published “The Book Of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder Of Matthew Shepard.” Jimenez researched the case for over ten years, interviewed well over 100 subjects, and produced a narrative that sharply contradicts the story we’ve believed since 1998.

As gay people we all know the basic story. It’s like one of those stories your Mom told you over and over, or like one of those Bible stories you heard so often in church and Sunday School. Matthew Shepard was a 21-year-old college student who went out to a bar in late 1998. He met two other young men, who said they’d give him a ride home. Instead, they savagely beat him, tied him to a rural fence, and left him to die. It was an obvious hate crime, and Aaron McKinney, the primary killer, later said that he had committed the murder because Matthew had come on to him.

Jimenez tells an entirely different story. His research indicated that both McKinney and Shepard were heavy drug users, and methamphetamine was their primary drug. They were both at least occasional drug dealers. Most shocking is the contention that McKinney and Shepard knew each other well before the murder. They had not only partied together, but McKinney was a bisexual who had engaged in sex with Shepard more than once.

McKinney had been on a methamphetamine binge for five days leading up to the murder, and was desperately in need of money. The murder was nothing more than a robbery, either of drugs themselves or of money to buy drugs. The anti-gay hate crime of the century was just another drug murder.

I have not read the book, so I can’t pass judgment on how plausible I think it is, or how journalistically sound it seems to be. I have, however, read a large amount of the reaction. That reaction, from both the right wing and the left wing, is fascinating, and is worth a bit of analysis.

I’ve been stunned by the glee with which much of the right wing greeted the story. To many it’s as if the whole “myth” of gay hate crimes has been invalidated, as if the cry-baby gays have been exposed as charlatans, with the mainstream media portrayed as pawns in their game. “Idiotic” is almost too mild a word for that reaction. There is no logical way it can matter at all if one gay bashing murder turns out to have been something else. If the new facts are 100% true it doesn’t change the fact that many other gay violence incidents have occurred, and that gays are targeted more frequently than any other hate crime victim group. To read ANYTHING into the potential debunking of one incident is logically absurd.

However, the reaction from the left wing has been illogical, even irrational. When the story first broke in mid September I began reading multiple articles about it, and the comments on gay-specific or left leaning sites were bizarrely anti-intellectual, seeming like a mirror image of right wing no-nothing commenters on Fox News, World Net Daily and the like.

The worst examples of this type of reaction I found on Media Matters. One commenter called the book “homophobic trash.” Many questioned the integrity and motives of the author. “Why would anyone buy [the book], let alone give the author a chance to be seen on a camera,” said one. “I will not read anti-gay trash, and I will encourage all I know to boycott this piece of garbage,” said another.

Author Stephen Jimenez

Additional comments from the intellectually curious, broad-minded, truth seeking side of the political aisle: “I would not even use this book as Puppy Training Pads, much less read it;” “I have a dog. If I wanted to wallow in a steaming pile, I have plenty of opportunity, every morning. What comes out of my dog doesn't smell quite as bad as this book;” “How all around revolting. Way to sell out your own people to make a right wing buck, Jimenez.”

A few regular Media Matters commenters personally attacked any fellow commenter who simply supported the idea of reading the book, or supported the basic idea of the importance of truth. They were accused of being the author himself, or a notoriously anti-gay writer from Breitbart, or were assumed to be “sock puppets” or trolls because they didn’t have a long history of commenting on the site. As if it could never happen that readers (like me) who didn’t regularly read Media Matters might find the site because of the article attempting to debunk Jimenez, and might be inclined to counter the claptrap from the regular commenters. The attacks were vicious, disturbing and deplorable.

The important point here is that all these comments come from the perspective of people who haven’t read the book, and will not read the book. They assume the author is evil and his findings “homophobic trash,” no thinking needed, thank you. Those findings contradict their long held and cherished perceptions, and so they must be opposed vigorously. “Truth” doesn’t even enter the picture as a value. Thinking, analysis and open-minded investigation don’t enter the picture. The new story CAN’T be true and therefore it isn’t.

Interestingly, as time has gone on I have observed a bit of a swing the other way, with more thoughtful commenters reacting to the original comments. Several have said, in essence, “don’t dismiss out of hand journalistic reporting simply because it doesn’t comport with your preconceptions,” or “it’s important to follow the truth wherever it leads.”

I share those sentiments. I believe in truth, even when inconvenient, especially when it comes to journalism. In fact, the whole point of journalism is to uncover the truth. This does not mean that I am saying that Jimenez’ book is true. I haven’t read it, and even when I do the ultimate truth will still be murky. But it is intellectually dishonest to dismiss a journalistic enterprise out of hand without reading it, and especially without looking at it with an open mind. We accuse the right wing of having quintessentially closed minds. What I observed among my fellow left wingers on gay and left wing sites was an epidemic of closed, frightened, reactionary minds that would make Glen Beck proud.

Over time Matthew Shepard has become a sort of “saint” to some in the gay community similar to the saints in the Christian world. There is a mythology around him, and he represents big truths far beyond the reality of who he actually was. As with the Christian saints, the truth is less important than the mythology. But for me personally, as much as I identified with Matthew and as much as his death impacted me, I insist on seeing him as a human being, with strengths and weaknesses, good qualities and foibles. For me, if I read this book and conclude it’s true, it will change my perception of Matthew. But I’m OK with that. I’m fine with Matthew Shepard as a human being rather than a saint.

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Reply Dennis Stone
6:01 PM on October 14, 2013 
He went to Laramie in 2000 to write a screenplay based on the case. He had no reason to believe it was anything other than what was portrayed in the press at the time. He found an anonymous letter in some official files that stated that the two defendants frequented gay bars and had gay sex, and that McKinney had known Shepard before the murder. That got him looking into the case, and he then spent 13 years researching the story before publishing his book. I don't know why he took 13 years, whether it was a side project, or what.

There's absolutely no question in my mind that any journalist worthy of the name would have to follow that up. A story that big, with indications that it was much different than the public perception, there's no way you could just let that die. "Uncovering and revealing the truth" is essentially the credo of journalism. The motive doesn't bother me at all. I sure as heck would have been all over that story had I been in that situation.

Jellybean says...
I won't read this book, but I would like to know why this writer even decided to do the investigation. Did he have someone come to him and have him investigate? Did he decide to earn some money and make a name for himself? I really don't know that much about Matthew Shepard, but it seems strange after all this time Jimenez would investigate without motivation.
Reply Jellybean
5:26 PM on October 14, 2013 
I won't read this book, but I would like to know why this writer even decided to do the investigation. Did he have someone come to him and have him investigate? Did he decide to earn some money and make a name for himself? I really don't know that much about Matthew Shepard, but it seems strange after all this time Jimenez would investigate without motivation.
Reply The_Fixer
1:55 AM on October 11, 2013 
If true, this could change things. Or not.

I say that because it likely won't change many minds. I have half a mind to read it, just to see what he says and to try and analyze the quality of his research.

Beneath all of this, I have to wonder just what the motivation of the writer was. And although the meth usage makes some sense in the brutality of the murder, that is not the only possible reason for it.

In any case, he's not here to speak for himself, and the murderer isn't talking. The investigators have not mentioned meth use or dealing by anybody. I know that their not infallible, but you'd think that something like that would have been brought out in court.

In the end, we may never know about the veracity of the claims made by the author of this book.
Reply John
11:50 PM on October 10, 2013 
I haven't read the book and have no immediate plans to. Maybe if I spot it on a remaindered table sometime. But everything I've read about it indicates to me that it's a hodge-podge of anonymous sources and innuendo combined with radical interpretations of information that in some cases the author contradicts within his own text. Ultimately this book will be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Not having followed the controversy super-closely, nonetheless I am mightily amused by the rush by many on the right to embrace the book. Those people, or their direct antecedents, are the same one who collectively birthed entire flocks of birds of "Fortunate Son", the unauthorized biography of George W. Bush that suggested his daddy made some cocaine charges go away, charges that would have likely derailed any possible future political career. Strange how when it's the clown prince of the Right (who is still alive and able to defend himself) is on the receiving end it's a travesty but not when it's a dead kid who can't fight back.
Reply Hue-Man
5:12 PM on October 10, 2013 
The symbolism of his horrendous death strikes each of us at various levels - those who have endured physical attacks, those who have been bullied, those who have been ostracized by their families, even those who realize how easily anti-gay smears come to the lips (fingertips?) of those we thought were allies. Those mental images we have constructed will survive whatever clarifications/amendments are made to the storyline.

After 15 years, the time for "journalists" is ending and it's time to cede the analysis to "historians". I haven't read and won't read this particular book - I'll wait for the historian's perspective on what can only be described as the very complex life of "St. Matthew".
Reply Dennis Stone
12:09 PM on October 10, 2013 
If - and it's certainly a big "if" at this point - the facts of the book are essentially true, the method and violence of the murder are explained by the methamphetamine high. I've never used the drug myself, but I knew someone who was addicted for awhile, and have read a lot. I'm told that meth can lead to uncontrollable rage and violence. I find it interesting that McKinney attacked three other people that same day. By several accounts he was in the middle or toward the end of a meth binge on the day of the murder.

I wouldn't say motive is secondary. In fact, the whole mythology of Matthew depends on the motive being an overt anti-gay hate crime. Without that the scenario is very different. What I'm saying, though, is that the big picture is not dependent at all on what actually happened with Matthew. Whether or not it was a hate crime, the underlying societal dynamic is the same.

Ulysses Dietz says...
He was a young gay man who was murdered because he was vulnerable. The method of his murder speaks to some darker motif than purely drug-induced robbery. Maybe it was not because he was gay - but there was cruelty beyond mere violence there, and those facts are irrefutable. Motive, here, is secondary, to the fact of the killing.
Reply Ulysses Dietz
10:43 AM on October 10, 2013 
He was a young gay man who was murdered because he was vulnerable. The method of his murder speaks to some darker motif than purely drug-induced robbery. Maybe it was not because he was gay - but there was cruelty beyond mere violence there, and those facts are irrefutable. Motive, here, is secondary, to the fact of the killing.