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Matthew Shepard & The Casualty Of Culture War

Was Matthew Shepard a martyr for gay rights? No, he wasn’t, according to a new book by gay investigative journalist Stephen Jimenez, sympathetically reviewed in the gay magazine The Advocate. The book contends that the Shepard killing was about crystal meth, and that Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the murderers, were themselves closeted gay men having […]

Was Matthew Shepard a martyr for gay rights? No, he wasn’t, according to a new book by gay investigative journalist Stephen Jimenez, sympathetically reviewed in the gay magazine The Advocate. The book contends that the Shepard killing was about crystal meth, and that Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the murderers, were themselves closeted gay men having sex on the down low. Excerpt from the review:

By several accounts, McKinney had been on a meth bender for five days prior to the murder, and spent much of October 6 trying to find more drugs. By the evening he was so wound up that he attacked three other men in addition to Shepard. Even Cal Rerucha, the prosecutor who had pushed for the death sentence for McKinney and Henderson, would later concede on ABC’s 20/20 that “it was a murder that was driven by drugs.”

No one was talking much about meth abuse in 1998, though it was rapidly establishing itself in small-town America, as well as in metropolitan gay clubs, where it would leave a catastrophic legacy. In Wyoming in the late 1990s, eighth graders were using meth at a higher rate than 12th graders nationwide. It’s hardly surprising to learn from Jimenez that Shepard was also a routine drug user, and — according to some of his friends — an experienced dealer. (Although there is no real evidence for supposing that Shepard was using drugs himself on the night of his murder).


Despite the many interviews, Jimenez does not entirely resolve the true nature of McKinney’s relationship to Shepard, partly because of his unreliable chief witness. McKinney presents himself as a “straight hustler” turning tricks for money or drugs, but others characterize him as bisexual. A former lover of Shepard’s confirms that Shepard and McKinney had sex while doing drugs in the back of a limo owned by a shady Laramie figure, Doc O’Connor. Another subject, Elaine Baker, tells Jimenez that Shepard and McKinney were friends who had been in sexual threesome with O’Connor. A manager of a gay bar in Denver recalls seeing photos of McKinney and Henderson in the papers and recognizing them as patrons of his bar. He recounts his shock at realizing “these guys who killed that kid came from inside our own community.”

Not everyone is interested in hearing these alternative theories. When 20/20 engaged Jimenez to work on a segment revisiting the case in 2004, GLAAD bridled at what the organization saw as an attempt to undermine the notion that anti-gay bias was a factor; Moises Kaufman, the director and co-writer of The Laramie Project, denounced it as “terrible journalism,” though the segment went on to win an award from the Writers Guild of America for best news analysis of the year.

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. In his book, Flagrant Conduct, Dale Carpenter, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, similarly unpicks the notorious case of Lawrence v. Texas, in which the arrest of two men for having sex in their own bedroom became a vehicle for affirming the right of gay couples to have consensual sex in private. Except that the two men were not having sex, and were not even a couple. Yet this non-story, carefully edited and taken all the way to the Supreme Court, changed America.

Read the whole thing. It’s soberly written, and must have taken courage both to write and for The Advocate to publish. The magazine is going to take a lot of grief from its readership for this, I bet. People do not like to have their sacred myths revealed as untrue. It took real integrity for Stephen Jimenez to write this book, and for The Advocate to publish this favorable review.

If true, the Matthew Shepard story is the I, Rigoberta Menchu of the gay rights movement: a story that’s not true, but useful to the cause, therefore believed and propagated, and accepted as true because it confirms all the biases of many, and is helpful in achieving an important social and political goal they see as good.

The first casualty of war is truth. It’s also the first casualty of culture war. The phenomenon Jimenez dissects in The Book Of Matt is one that longtime readers will know is important to me: how we know what we know, and how our desire to believe a certain narrative that comforts or justifies us leads us to accept as true things that are not, or that are at least far more ambiguous than we think. The story of Matthew Shepard as a martyr struck a deeply resonant chord within many gays and their supporters in the media, who created the hagiography and, as this review acknowledges, was fiercely defended by leading gay activists in the face of contrary evidence reported at the time. The thing is, I wouldn’t be quick to accuse these activists and their media allies to have been conscious liars. I know what it’s like to want to believe something so badly that you close your mind to the possibility that things aren’t what they appear to be — and, in turn, you conceal your motives from yourself. This describes the way I responded to 9/11 with regard to the case for the Iraq War, though I didn’t recognize it until years later. There were liberals and a minority among conservatives — including the founders of this magazine — who didn’t buy the pro-war narrative. People like me considered them gutless, or, infamously, “unpatriotic.” We did not grasp the extent to which we were captive to confirmation bias. We thought we were seeing things with perfect lucidity. But we were very wrong.

This is not a left-wing or a right-wing thing. It is not a gay or straight thing, it is not a religious versus atheist thing. It’s a human thing. Over the past decade, I’ve had to deal with a number of people who refused to believe that their religious leaders were, or at least were likely to be, bad guys, because if that was true, then maybe the narrative they preferred to believe about the way the world works was not accurate. The need for simple heroes, simple villains, and simple causes is like crack. Look at a Washington Post reporter’s desperate attempt to fit the facts of a gay man’s murder in Mississippi — all evidence supported the story that this was a lover’s quarrel between gay men — into the Civil Rights template, to create a gay rights martyr based on … nothing.

Strictly speaking, the case for gay rights and same-sex marriage does not depend on the martyrdom of Matthew Shepard. Nor did the case for civil rights for black Americans depend on things like the bombing of the Atlanta Birmingham church 50 years ago yesterday, a horrifying example of terrorism, one that killed four little girls at Sunday school. It takes stories, though, to make abstract arguments breathe and bleed. In this regard, Matthew Shepard’s murder was the 9/11 of the gay rights movement. And the official story was probably a lie, we now learn from a gay journalist who, if this review in The Advocate accurately describes his book, valued journalism more than the Cause.

This episode brings to mind my recent TAC piece about the vital importance of conservatives learning how to tell stories. What I argued was that stories change hearts and minds for more readily than arguments. Excerpt:

True story: in 2003, I watched a segment of ABC’s “PrimeTime Live” in which Diane Sawyer profiled the quest of a gay male couple to adopt a baby from an unwed teen mother. The couple was plainly unprepared to raise a child, and though their fatherhood experiment failed, Sawyer concluded her charming piece with unambiguous sympathy for them and for the cause of gay adoption.

I knew that night that we were going to have gay marriage in this country. The news media were only going to tell one kind of story about marriage, family, and homosexuality—and eventually this narrative, repeated often enough, would determine politics and policy. Ten years later, with the false, distorted, and simplistic anti-gay narratives of the past having been wholly replaced by false, distorted, and simplistic pro-gay narratives, a cultural revolution has substantially been achieved. Stories have consequences.

The lesson for conservatives is absolutely not that we should see truth instrumentally, and shape facts and their interpretation to fit a predetermined narrative. The last prominent conservative who did that got us into a disastrous war.  It is profoundly corrupting to consciously tell lies, or half-truths, for the sake of a good cause. Period. Rather, the point I wished to make in that piece is for conservatives to understand how much more powerful stories are in conveying truth and changing the world. With relation to social policy and cultural change, the Matthew Shepard narrative is one of the most powerful examples of that in our time. We now learn that it was not at all what we had been led to believe. But that story did exactly what its advocates wanted it to do politically, and none of the evidence that came out at the time that countered the martyr narrative stood against the power of that story. For that matter, I was not aware that there even was a counternarrative, so thoroughly has the canonized version of Shepard’s death taken hold in the popular imagination. Were you?

One thing I’ve learned from bitter experience: when you feel very passionate and highly certain about something, that is a good sign that you should work particularly hard to examine your own premises and logic. Perfect objectivity is impossible for any human, but we can do better than we usually do if we try to separate ourselves from our passions, and to work to understand how our passions can blind us to reality, and cause us to fit the facts around the story we prefer to believe.

I admire Stephen Jimenez so much for the courage it took to stick with this story for 13 years, and to report facts that apparently destroy the narrative that he expected to find when he first went to Wyoming to look into the Shepard case. There will be a number of people who will hate him for what he’s done, especially because he himself is a gay journalist. May we all find the courage to follow the truth and to deal with it, no matter where it leads. I aspire to be as brave in my work as Jimenez has been in his. All of us should learn a lesson from his book. It is important to stand up for what we believe is right. But it is more important for us to stand up for the truth.



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