The Shepard murder revisited
This month marks 20 years since the death of Matthew Shepard. In October 1998, Shepard, then 21, was a first-year college student at University of Wyoming. Under the guise of friendship, two men (Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson) lured Shepard 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 is tenaciously sticking with it, resulting in numerous hagiographies on Shepard as the quintessential LGBTQ icon.
However, as with all iconic narratives, apocryphal tales abound, along with queries concerning the truth.
In 2013, investigative journalist Stephen Jimenez, himself gay, wrote The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard, upending a canonized narrative we all have grown familiarly comfortable with irrespective of its sensationalized macabre details.
I had the pleasure of meeting Jimenez at his book reading at the Harvard Coop in October 2013. I told Jimenez that perhaps it’s easier to kill the messenger (him) than to hear his message, which is that Shepard’s murder had nothing to do with his sexual orientation and everything to do with his involvement in Laramie’s deadly crystal methamphetamine drug trafficking underworld. Jimenez writes that Shepard was not only a user, but 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 said in an interview with Rachel Martin on NPR.
According to Jimenez, Shepard’s murderers were not strangers—one was a bisexual crystal meth addict who not only knew Matthew, but also partied, bought drugs from, and had sex with Matthew. With this “new” information, a more textured but troubling narrative emerges.
Writing in the Advocate, Aaron Hicklin asked, “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?” Overall, the response to Jimenez’s book was a thunderous rebuke. He became an instant media sensation as a pariah, a Judas, and a colossal sellout.
Nonetheless, the story shatters a revered icon for LGBTQ rights, one in which the victim 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,” Gabriel Arana wrote in a 2009 piece titled “What the gay-rights movement has lost by making Shepard its icon.” “He looked like an attractive, angelic, white college student from the heart of conservative America. … The anointing of Matthew Shepard as an iconic image for LGBTQ rights not only concealed from the American public the real person but also it hid the other varied faces of hate crimes in 1998.”
For example, that of James Byrd Jr., who was walking home from a party along a highway in East Texas when he was offered a ride. The trip resulted in Byrd being dragged by his ankles to his death—simply because he was black.
Some would argue that it is a good thing, politically, to canonize someone in order to push through legislative changes needed by LGBTQ Americans. To those ends, the fruit of the Shepard narrative include the Matthew Shepard Foundation; the Laramie Project play; a TV movie, the Matthew Shepard Story; and the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, mostly known as the Matthew Shepard Act, to name a few.
Not bad, some would say, for a story built on more fiction than truth.
Now, the shelf life of the cultural currency of the Shepard narrative might expire after nearly two decades. “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.
Personally, I see the Jimenez book as a cautionary tale about how the needs of a community can sometimes trump the truth. In retrospect, crystal meth was popular in urban gay clubs and in small-town America. Places like Laramie. Homophobia, unquestionably, played a role in Shepard’s death, but drugs might have, too.
On this 20th anniversary of his death, perhaps it is time to revisit the story anew.
Rev. Irene Monroe can be heard on the podcast and standing Boston Public Radio segment ALL REV’D UP on WGBH (89.7 FM). Monroe’s syndicated religion columns appear and the Boston voice for Detour’s African American Heritage Trail. She is a s a Visiting Researcher in the Religion and Conflict Transformation Program at Boston University School of Theology.