Matthew Shepard was interred Friday at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. His ashes, along with a few keepsakes from his childhood—report cards, a Superman cape—will be kept alongside other notables like President Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller, and her teacher Anne Sullivan. The Right Reverend Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, will lead a public service honoring Shepard life, as well as his death.
The interment comes 20 years after Shepard was found beaten and tied to a wooden fence in Laramie, Wyoming. His assailants had pistol whipped him over a dozen times. He'd been there, barely alive in the cold Wyoming October, for almost a full day before he was discovered. Just 21 years old and a student at the University of Wyoming, Shepard would die five days after his body was found, in a hospital. Two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, were soon arrested, convicted, and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for Shepard's murder, which received widespread international attention. Why? Because Shepard, we were told, was killed simply for being gay.
Matthew Shepard's death was the kind of event that took on outsized importance. All the national press covered it, repeating the story that soon we'd all come to know: Shepard had gone to a bar and talked with the wrong guys—guys who would soon trick him into their truck, rob him, and drive him to a remote stretch of Wyoming land and beat him beyond recognition. Matthew Shepard's only mistake was running into some homophobic Wyoming rednecks and, for that, he was now dead. That's the story America, and the world, believed.
The murder became a rallying cry for the gay community. Gay rights groups organized around Shepard's death and the public began talking about hate crime legislation. In the following years, film, novels, plays (including the Laramie Project) and many other works of art would be inspired by Shepard's story, and the Matthew Shepard Foundation has become a powerful force in the queer community. Eventually, Congress would pass the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act, which expanded federal hate-crime laws to include crimes motivated by gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. Today, Matthew Shepard is perhaps the most famous hate crime victim of the last half-century. He's certainly the most famous gay murder victim.
But was Matthew Shepard actually the victim of hate crime? Twenty years after Shepard's death, I was completely unaware that there was any question about why Shepherd was killed until just a few weeks ago, when I came across a 2014 article in the Guardian about The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths about the Murder of Matthew Shepard, by investigative journalist Stephen Jimenez. Jimenez, who himself is gay, spent 13 years investigating Shepard's death, and his conclusion came as the kind of shock that makes you question if anything you believe is really true: Matthew Shepard was not killed because he was gay; he was killed over a large amount of crystal meth.
Julie Bindel, the author of the Guardian article, writes:
Jimenez found that Matthew was addicted to and dealing crystal meth and had dabbled in heroin. He also took significant sexual risks and was being pimped alongside Aaron McKinney, one of his killers, with whom he’d had occasional sexual encounters. He was HIV positive at the time of his death. ...
Matthew’s drug abuse, and the fact that he knew one of his killers prior to the attack, was never explored in court. Neither was the rumour that the killers knew that he had access to a shipment of crystal meth with a street value of $10,000 which they wanted to steal.
On the evening of October 6, 1998, according to Jimenez, Shepard went to a gay-friendly Laramie bar called the Fireside, where it was karaoke night. At the Fireside, Shepard ran into his eventual killers, Henderson and McKinney. The three talked for a bit before leaving the bar in McKinney's father's truck. It was in the truck that the men robbed Shepard of his wallet and keys (as well as his shoes) and began to beat him without mercy.
After the two men left Shepard hanging on a fence, where he was discovered the next day by a student out riding his bike, McKinney and Henderson headed towards Shepard's home, but on the way there they ran into two other young men who were out slashing tires and got in a fight. Soon after McKinney hit one of them, Emiliano Morales, on the head with the same gun he'd used to beat Shepard, police officer Flint Waters arrived on the scene and arrested them.
Bindel spoke to Waters, who told her, “I believe to this day that McKinney and Henderson were trying to find Matthew’s house so they could steal his drugs. It was fairly well known in the Laramie community that McKinney wouldn’t be one that was striking out of a sense of homophobia. Some of the officers I worked with had caught him in a sexual act with another man, so it didn’t fit. None of that made any sense.”
That's right: One of Shepard's killers was queer. Jimenez found through his reporting that McKinney had been Shepard's lover. Sure, it's possible that he had some internalized homophobia, but the narrative that Shepard was killed by bigot rednecks who targeted him for being gay is not, according to Jimenez, actually true. They killed him over meth.
What's more, Jimenez argues that Laramie wasn't a hotbed of idiocy and homophobia either. It was a college town, home to the University of Wyoming. And like most college towns, it was, and is, quite liberal and even gay-friendly. That truth got lost as the story spread, and Laramie became a parody of white trash ignorance and bigotry.
After Shepard's body was found, a couple of men in the local gay community contacted the press as well as gay rights groups, who connected the murder to the state legislature's recent failure to pass hate crime legislation. The story that this was a hate crime began to spread, and in the days immediately following his death, a vigil was held for Shepard on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres, Ted Kennedy, Barbra Streisand, Elton John, and Madonna all got involved, and his funeral was attended by over 1,000 people, with many of Shepard's friends dressed as angels.
Stephen Jimenez's book was not universally well-received by the gay community or the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which maintain that his murder was fueled by anti-gay bias. ThinkProgress said it "Doesn’t prove anything, other than the size of Stephen Jimenez’s ego," although, as Julie Bindel notes, Ted Henson, Shepard's longtime friend and lover, told her that The Book of Matt is “nothing more than the truth." Still, the reasons for the blacklash seem fairly obvious: Matthew Shepard has become more than a 21-year-old Wyoming college kid; he's become a martyr. What's more, plenty of people, especially gay people, thought this book would hurt the cause, and they blamed Stephen Jimenez.
So why write this book, especially when it upended a narrative nearly everyone had accepted as fact? "As a gay man who came out in the 1970s, marched in the first National Gay March on Washington, and then survived the plague years of the AIDS epidemic, I felt a moral obligation to not let Matthew’s tragedy be in vain," Jimenez told me in an email. "Yes, the popular narrative served a purpose, but it’s only ONE thread of a bigger, richer, more challenging story whose lessons we have barely learned. To avoid topics of addiction, including how crystal meth ravaged the queer community (and Matt’s life), is not helpful to anyone."
Ultimately, however, neither Jimenez's book nor, perhaps, the truth would change Shepard's place in the national imagination. He's still largely thought of as the young man who was killed just for being gay. And maybe that's a good thing. Things did, in fact, change for the gay community after Matthew Shepard's murder, and today, most gay people aren't just protected by hate crime legislation, we have most (but not all) of the same rights as everyone else. It seems fair to connect those victories, at least in part, with the story of Matthew Shepard. And so even if he was more the victim of a drug robbery than a hate crime, his death still helped push forward the fight for gay rights. Whatever the truth, the National Cathedral seems like a fitting resting place.
Still, finding out that Matthew Shepard was likely not the victim of a hate crime is, of course, a shock. I felt similarly when I found out that the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando wasn't motivated by homophobia either, but by U.S. foreign policy. The shooter didn't know Pulse was a gay club. He even asked where all the women were. Those facts, of course, don't make these deaths any less tragic, but understanding motivation does matter if we want to prevent these kinds of tragedies from happening in the future. It's enough to make you wonder, what else are we just assuming to be true? And does this willingness to blindly believe really serve us?
"The narrative about Matt is not static or fixed in time," Stephen Jimenez said. "Stories change and evolve, and hopefully, most of us can remain open to new information and ways of thinking. A more complete understanding of Matt’s tragedy is not going to turn back the clock on our rights. Such thinking stems from fear-based, orthodox thinking. I don’t buy it. Truth is always liberating—not just when it suits our beliefs or agenda."