October is LGBT History Month, encouraging the LGBTQ community to celebrate its progress and contributions, as well as look back at historical events.
That includes the murder of Matthew Shepard. Last week marked 20 years since his death on October 12, 1998. Shepard, then 21, was a first-year college student at the University of Wyoming. Under the guise of friendship, two men (Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson) lured him from a tavern, tortured and bludgeoned him with their rifles, and then tethered him to a rough-hewn wooden fence to die — simply because he was gay.
That’s the story the world over has come to know. And, for the most part, the LGBTQ community has tenaciously stuck with it, resulting in numerous hagiographies on Shepard as the quintessential LGBTQ icon.
However, despite all the iconic narratives, apocryphal tales also abound, resulting in queries concerning the story’s true nature.
In 2013, investigative journalist Stephen Jimenez, himself gay, wrote The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard. The book upended a canonized narrative the public has grown familiarly comfortable with, irrespective of its sensationalized macabre details.
In reading Jimenez’s book, we shockingly learn that Shepard is a fictive narrative. Jimenez posits that Shepard’s murder had nothing to do with his sexual orientation, but rather his involvement in the deadly underworld of Laramie, Wy.’s crystal methamphetamine drug trafficking. Jimenez writes that Shepard was not only a user; he was also a courier who had plans just before his death to drive a shipment 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,” Jimenez stated in an NPR interview with Rachel Martin of “Weekend Edition.”
According to Jimenez, Shepard’s murderers were not strangers — one is a bisexual crystal meth addict who not only knew Matthew, but partied, bought drugs from and had sex with Matthew. With this “new” information, a more textured but troubling narrative emerges.
The response, however, to Jimenez’s book was a thunderous rebuke, making him an instant media sensation as a pariah, a Judas, and a colossal sellout. It even inspired Aaron Hicklin’s article, “Have We Got Matthew Shepard All Wrong?” in The Advocate, where he posed the question, “Did our need to make a symbol of Shepard blind us to a messy, complex story that is darker and more troubling than the established narrative?”
In a 2004 episode of “20/20,” investigative journalist Elizabeth Vargas also reported that money and drugs motivated Shepard killers’ actions and not homophobia. However, many immediately discredited the episode once finding out that Jimenez was its producer.
This story, nonetheless, shatters a revered icon for LGBTQ rights, one who was deliberately chosen because of his 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 Shepard as an iconic image for LGBTQ rights not only concealed from the American public the real person, but it also hid the other varied faces of hate crimes in 1998.
For example, the murder of James Byrd, Jr. — which many saw as a hate crime — was instead depicted as lynching-by-dragging. Walking home from a party along a highway in East Texas, Byrd was offered a ride. The ride resulted in him being dragged by his ankles to his death — simply because he was Black.
Some, however, would empathically argue Shepard’s narrative is a good one to politically canonize in order to push for needed legislative changes in the protection and understanding of LGBTQ Americans.
The fruit of that narrative included the launches of The Matthew Shepard Foundation and The Laramie Project, the TV movie The Matthew Shepard Story, as well as hate crime legislation, including The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, mostly known as the Matthew Shepard Act.
Not bad, some would say, for a story built on more fiction than truth.
The cultural currency of the Shepard narrative’s shelf life, however, might now, after nearly two decades, be flickering out. It’s now of no immediate political expediency 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,” Hicklin wrote.
I read Jimenez’s The Book of Matt as a cautionary tale of how the needs of a community might have trumped the truth. In retrospect, crystal meth was popular in urban gay clubs and in small-town America like Laramie. Homophobia, unquestionably, played a role in Shepard’s death, but drugs might have, too.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s death. Perhaps, we should revisit the story anew.
Rev. Irene Monroe is an African American lesbian feminist public theologian, sought-after speaker, and preacher.