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Friday, November 1, 2013

An Unlikely Angel

I have been wrestling with this topic for a while.  I think today is the day to post.


Fifteen years ago this week, the world watched as a grisly story unfolded in southeastern Wyoming.  A gay college student, Matthew Aaron Shephard, was found -- beaten and left tied to a remote fencepost -- by a bicyclist who initially mistook him for a scarecrow.  Shepard died October 12th in a Colorado hospital.

Two young men, with whom Shepard had last been seen the night of October 6th at a Laramie bar, were charged and subsequently convicted of the crime.  One, Russell Henderson, pled guilty and testified against the other (Aaron McKinney) in exchange for avoiding the death penalty. McKinney's life was spared by Shepard's parents, who agreed to two life sentences with no chance of parole.

“But there was something about Matt that caused the giant, callous machine that is America to take its foot off the gas, if only for a relative moment, and maybe, just maybe, start to think it was possible that gay men were not all sick predators. Maybe we were actual people, who could and did feel pain.”
As we mark a decade and a half since Shepard's death, he is again in the virtual limelight.  A new film, entitled Matthew Shepard is a Friend of Mine, premiered on both coasts last weekend. One venue was the Cathedral Church of St. Peter & St. Paul in Washington D.C.  The Very Rev. Gary Hall, Dean of the Cathedral, used his sermon this past Sunday to remember Matthew and Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide in 2010 after learning his time alone with a male friend had been secretly recorded and broadcast on the Internet by his roommate.  The mothers of both young men participated in a forum after the service.  You can read and watch videos of both the sermon and the forum using the links above.

Though I was not yet an Episcopalian (and in fact in a state of cold war with the church, more on that another day!) in 1998, I found myself with 1,000 others at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York, attending a memorial for a person I knew nothing about, other than that he was gay like me, and that he was brutally, gruesomely dead.  I didn't know it at the time, but this struck a particular chord within the Episcopal Church, perhaps because Matt was one of us, a member of St. Mark's: Casper and an acolyte.

Even before Shepard died, there was something about this attack, amongst all the others against LGBT people that occurred before and since, that was different. I don't know if it was because he was a slightly-built guy with youthful features, who looked in the photos that were everywhere in those days to be incapable of hurting a fly.  I don't know if it was the way he was found hanging pitifully from that fence, which for Christians could conjure up one image and one image only.  But there was something about Matt that caused the giant, callous machine that is America to take its foot off the gas, if only for a relative moment, and maybe, just maybe start to think it was possible that gay men were not all sick predators.  Maybe we were actual people, who could and did feel pain.

As a result, it felt natural to accept that the murder was an anti-gay hate crime.  After all, the perpetrators initially claimed as much, saying Shepard had been targeted because of his sexuality, and that they pretended to be sexually interested in him to gain his trust, so as to get him alone and rob him.  What they didn't explain is why they couldn't just rob him as planned, instead of beating him to a pulp.

But the murder had set wheels into motion.  Misanthropic quasi-Christians aside, the general consensus was that this was going to be -- like Lawrence vs. Kansas -- a case that changed everything.  It took over a decade, but the names of Shepard and James Byrd, an African-American man who was savagely killed the same year by white supremacists, grace the bill -- passed in 2009 -- that added sexual orientation and gender identity (real or perceived) to the nation's hate crimes law and expanded it past federally-protected activities like voting or attending school.

The narrative around Shepard's story is not homogenous, however, and it does not arouse compassionate impulses in everyone.  A recent University of Mississippi production of Moises Kaufman's The Laramie Project (a re-enactment of Shepard's murder and the events that followed based on interviews with townspeople who were involved) was disrupted by homophobic jeers from the audience.  Students, including approximately 20 members of the Ole Miss Rebels football team, had been compelled by the administration to attend the play.  In the absence of anyone taking responsibility, the school announced since that all students who were present will be required to participate in a discussion about the incident.

Separately, a gay freelance journalist named Stephen Jimenez has just written a book which stands the public understanding of the case on its ear.  Quoting sources who claimed friendship with them both, The Book of Matt posits that Shepard not only knew his attackers, but that he and Henderson had been sexually intimate in the past. McKinney, Jimenez claims, worked as a prostitute and enjoyed sex with gay men.  He claims that all three men used and sold crystal meth, and that it was more likely that the attack was a drug deal gone bad than an anti-gay hate crime.

In an award-winning 1999 essay for Harper's, JoAnn Wypijewski unpacked the intricacies of the world the three men inhabited, in an attempt to understand how the pieces that led to the murder fell into place.  By her account, Henderson and McKinney were both on a week long meth binge, and bore no more hatred of the gay Shepard than the other men, ostensibly straight, that they beat up later that night.  Of the media's reaction after, she wrote, "Press crews who had never before and have not since lingered over gruesome murders of homosexuals came out in force, reporting their brush with a bigotry so poisonous it could scarcely be imagined."  In her opinion, it was decided that Shepard was to be the poster child of the hate crime lobby, and any attempt to derail that was squashed.  My initial reaction was that she must be the new Anne Coulter, 'til I dug a bit and discovered she worked for a decade at Mother Jones.  Socially progressive generally, she doesn't agree with the idea of hate crime laws, arguing that putting people in different categories implies one person's murder is worse than another's. 

Wypijewski wrote about the case again in 2004 after a 20/20 piece (which Jimenez also helped produce) exploring the drug angle drew outrage by LGBT groups and Shepard's family.  She called the way the story had been framed in the public consciousness the "second tragedy" to occur at Laramie.  The third, a year after Shepard died, was the death of Russell Henderson's mother Cindy Dixon, who had been raped, beaten, and left to die in the snow. There were no hate crime laws to protect her, Wypijewski asserts.  Her well-known problems “with the drinking, and the men” led locals to write off her death as practically inevitable, and the perpetrator of a crime similar to that against Shepard got off with a manslaughter charge and is already out of jail. 

A piece by Aaron Hicklin in the Advocate suggests that -- even if there is truth to Jimenez's view of the story -- it doesn't make Shepard's death any less awful or undeserved.  He argues that there is a time and place for different versions of narrative. "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 writes.  He goes back to the Lawrence vs. Texas case, which unraveled sodomy laws nationwide after (we were told) two men were arrested for having consensual sex in their own house.  Except that -- if you actually read the details -- they weren't a couple, and they weren't even having sex. 

Those of us who are LGBT must reconcile the fact that we collectively benefited from the public's response to this story as it was told them.  If any of Jimenez's version is true -- and we may never know if it is -- it messes with the imagery we have collectively built around the diminutive figure whose death galvanized a movement. Reports that Shepard was depressed and possibly engaging in harmful behavior are not new, but they were never the focus of the narrative.  Unsurprisingly, conservative voices are playing this up as evidence of why hate crime laws are bad, and progressives are pushing back, pointing out holes in Jimenez' story, most importantly the unreliability of his star witness (Henderson) and Jimenez's own connections with the defense attorney in the case. 

I found the whole controversy unsettling, but I also grew up among journalists, and -- in the process of writing this -- found myself digging deeper, wanting to understand the situation and thus make peace with it, even in a place of continued uncertainty.  I have dear friends who are furious at the idea that anyone is trying to change the public's perception of who Shepard was, especially if it appears to be for some personal motive.  Maybe Kaufman's portayal is closer to the truth, maybe Jimenez's is, but I'm not sure it matters.  Nobody deserves to suffer as Shepard did, and many LGBT people do, ever year.

Within the Episcopal church, we  seek to be inspired by those whose lives and deaths touch us is reflected in our calendar of  "saints" as documented in the book Holy Women, Holy Men.  We expect no miracles of our saints, and in fact some of them were known to struggle with deep flaws.  In the case of Matthew Shepard (who is not in the aforementioned book), I think it's important to remember that he never signed up to become an icon for LGBT rights, nor the public scrutiny that goes with it.  His death made many people think about gay people (and -- sorry -- gay men in particular) differently, but it was one death in many.  LGBT people continue to be killed, even in enlightened places like Seattle and New York, their names sadly unknown to but a handful. If the randomness of Shepard's genetics or the horrible, crucifixion-like manner in which he died meant enough hearts were changed that we could spur the progress we have made since, is that miracle enough?

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