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A troubling vision of Matthew Shepard

The moment ABC’s 20/20 announced it would air an hour-long show on the "real facts" behind the 1998 Matthew Shepard murder, controversies began to swirl. Without having seen the program, groups such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), a media watchdog organization; Lambda Legal Defense, a nonprofit legal-advocacy organization; and the Matthew Shepard Foundation (run by his parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard) sensed that the 20/20 story would attempt to "de-gay" the murder of the 21-year-old Wyoming college student, which everyone — up until now — had claimed was a homophobic hate crime.

Indeed, the 20/20 exposé — which airs Friday, November 26, at 10 p.m. on ABC — does make the case that Shepard’s murder was not a hate crime, but simply a robbery gone horribly wrong. While the show contains some interesting and good reporting, in its rush to be an "exposé" it fails quite spectacularly in supplying the complete context of what happened. It leaves us asking more questions than we might have had at the outset — questions not just about what happened that fateful night in 1998 and about the politics of this specific show, but about how we, as a culture, create victims and martyrs to serve our own causes and purposes.

Matthew Shepard has become an international symbol of how hatred for gay people can erupt in ferocious, homicidal behavior. His murder was the basis for two television films and an award-winning documentary play, The Laramie Project, as well as the incentive for national organizing to stop violence against gay people. Judy Shepard has become a spokeswoman not just for anti-violence campaigns, but for a series of pro-gay projects, through the Matthew Shepard Foundation. There is no doubt the political and cultural ramifications of Shepard’s murder are still being felt today. And, indeed, the power of his story rests not only on the fact that he was murdered solely because he was gay, but also on the notion that he was a completely "innocent" victim — young, slight, unworldly, naive. Shepard was the perfect victim as well as the perfect martyr.

So what are we to make of 20/20’s "shocking" revelations (and they are described as "shocking")? Well, the show presents well-documented facts that — on the face of it — change the widely held Matthew Shepard story. These facts are: 1) Shepard was HIV-positive and apparently very upset and depressed about it. 2) Shepherd was a frequent user of crystal meth, and was part of a Laramie bar-and-nightlife community that was involved in meth use. 3) Shepard knew his killer, Aaron McKinney, through this drug connection before the night of the murder, and the two had been seen socializing together. 4) McKinney was an active bisexual with a history of engaging in sex with men (something he denies during the 20/20 show, but several other people insist it’s true). 5) And most important, McKinney and Russell Henderson did not kill Matthew Shepard because he was gay; instead, their attempt to rob him went terribly wrong when McKinney flew into a meth-fueled rage and beat Shepard so severely that he died.

This information raises serious questions about the Matthew Shepard story as we have known it. And though the producers of 20/20 go out of their way to condemn the murder and to praise the good work that’s been done in Shepard’s name, there is still something discomforting lurking behind 20/20’s we-are-just-doing-this-to-clarify-what-happened tone.

There are two problems here. The first is that 20/20 presents viewers with a false choice: Shepard was murdered either because he was gay, or because he was a robbery victim. Common sense tells us McKinney and Henderson could have targeted him because they thought he had money and because they thought that as a gay person — not only was Shepard small and fragile-looking, but they might have thought him less likely to press charges after being robbed — he was a more perfect mark. These two reasons can co-exist; there is no need to choose one or the other. Most crimes have multiple causes, and this one probably was no exception. And, one has to wonder, when was the last time 20/20 spent a full hour looking at the complexity and range of homophobic hate crimes, rather than proving one specific crime was misunderstood and misrepresented by the media?

The second problem here is far more thorny. The lure and power of the Matthew Shepard story is that he was the perfect victim for the media — as well as for the gay-and-lesbian community. And while 20/20 never strays from saying this was a terrible crime, it does end up implying that Shepard was a less-than-completely-innocent victim who might have been, in some way, complicit in his own death. Let’s face it: the general population is going to have less sympathy for a wealthy, HIV-positive, meth-snorting college kid who had lived abroad for much of his life than it does for the angelic, fragile icon of Matthew Shepard that has been presented to us over the past six years.

But if this is a problem, it is not one invented by 20/20 as much as by a world that wanted, desperately, to see Shepard as the ultimate innocent victim, who would represent how dangerous the world is to gay people. Matthew Shepard was human and no one who is human can be completely, perfectly innocent. If the need to define hate crimes, and to argue against homophobic violence, means we have to extract them from the complicated fabric of everyday life, then we are all in trouble — more trouble than 20/20 can ever cause with this exposé.

Issue Date: November 26 - December 2, 2004
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