Matthew Shepard: a gay Everyman?

This commentary is the opinion of the author and may not necessarily reflect those of other authors at Box Turtle Bulletin.

Gabriel Arana

September 4th, 2009

I have a piece in the American Prospect today that questions whether the gay rights movement should be elevating Matthew Shepard to the status of gay Everyman:

Over 1,400 members of the LGBT community are victims of a hate crime every year, which includes violent attacks as well as harassment. Why, then, is Shepard the “face” of gay rights? The implication is that all the other candidates weren’t quite right: not urban New Yorkers dying of AIDS in the 1980s, not inner-city black adolescents whose parents kicked them out of the house, not leather daddies marching on Washington. The pictures of other gays, lesbians, and transgender people did not prove sufficiently salable to make it onto rally placards.

I guess what I think is problematic is that Matthew Shepard — the person — has very little to do with Matthew Shepard, the icon. I know Shepard has become a religion to many gay rights supporters, but how we’ve deified him says a lot about the politics of the gay rights movement. And should we really be fighting for hate-crimes legislation? I think it would be better to fight for the federal nondiscrimination act; hate-crimes legislation can’t bring back the dead, but nondiscrimination laws do a lot to protect gay people who are living.

I’d be interested to hear what BTB readers think.

September 4th, 2009


Ok, here goes:

I think that the reason why all of those others who have suffered/are suffering are rarely even acknowledged in the media so most people don’t even know about them.

Matthew made national news and shocked and appalled many — and not just the LGBTI community.

Here was this clean cut college kid who was brutally killed. Many people (inhumanely, of course) try to find reasons to blame LGBTI victims… that somehow their “lifestyle” provoked it.

So here was a kid who was doing what all kids his age “should be” doing (ie. going to college)… and he was killed anyway.

I think it was wise to use the widespread media and recognition as a platform for education. Which is what his mother has done (and done well).

Others who use Matthew’s name just are playing off that notoriety.

I don’t think referring to Matthew when talking about LGBTI violence devalues anyone else who has suffered violence and/or death at the hands of homophobia.

As for hate crimes legislation, there is already hate crimes legislation for other groups. We just want to be included – which we should be.

We need both hate crimes legislation and ENDA.

I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. We can have both, no?

Damn, I shoulda just blogged this. :)


September 4th, 2009

hate-crimes legislation can’t bring back the dead

This is really simplistic commentary. Obviously the purpose of hate crimes laws is to deter future crime, not to undo past crime. Laws against murder don’t bring back the dead either but they’re still essential to an ordered society. I’m surprised anyone doesn’t understand that.

I tend to agree that ENDA is not given the attention it deserves relative to DADT and hate crimes, but they’re all extremely important.

Michael Ditto

September 4th, 2009

Hate crimes legislation is a done deal. It’s in conference right now, and there is no doubt that it will pass and be signed by the President.

Matthew Shepard’s murder shocked my community because he was from my community. We all knew him. He’s a face of hate crime legislation because he was one of ours. As was Angie Zapata, a trans Latina teenager murdered last year about half an hour away from the hospital where Matt died. And as we did with Matt and his family, we all turned out for vigils and the trial and to support her family in every way we could.

Matt has been deified because he’s dead. We deify dead people. Michael Jackson has been cleansed of all his sins. As has Ronald Reagan. And Matt’s the face of the hate crime push nationally because of one person–Judy Shepard. Her entire purpose in life is keeping Matt in our collective consciousness for the purpose of passing hate crime legislation.

And then there are people like you with an apparent ax to grind, who kick dirt on the gravestones of the dead because they don’t fit your personal ideal of a martyr, and who make baseless claims about Faustian bargains to hide the drag queens and trans people, something that’s a load of horse manure.

People have prejudices, yes. Even gay people. Even especially gay people, as those who are wronged by society tend to find someone else more specific to blame. It’s something we need to work on constantly to become better people and build our collective power. And it’s something you’re guilty of throughout your article.

Emily K

September 4th, 2009

I agree that he was just an everyday college kid, but as far as I know, he was also deeply depressed, involved with drugs, and (i THINK) HIV positive – which means he was not devoid of the demons that plague the queer community thanks to stigma and hate.

Timothy Kincaid

September 4th, 2009


Can you please provide links to your assertions about Matthew Shepard?



September 4th, 2009

It’s because he was young, white and cute. If Shepard’s been deified, it’s because he could be – because his death would touch straight middle-Americans in ways that their subconscious prejudices would prevent them from doing if he’d been old, black &/or ugly. He had the magic combination that could unlock their sympathies. The rest of us would just end up as a footnote – if we were lucky.

russ hemphill

September 4th, 2009

Because of his sexuality, Shepard faced physical and verbal abuse. During a high school trip to Morocco he was beaten and raped, causing him to withdraw and experience bouts of depression and panic attacks, according to his mother. One of Shepard’s friends feared his depression caused him to become involved with drugs during his time in college. wiki

“New Details Emerge in Matthew Shepard Murder”. ABC News Internet Ventures. 2004-11-26. Retrieved 2009-06-07.

Emily K

September 4th, 2009

I think russ has the right link.


September 4th, 2009

The pictures of other gays, lesbians, and transgender people did not prove sufficiently salable to make it onto rally placards. G Arana

I tried to post comments a couple of times but they are in the hinterland of the internet of in the que of the comments policy.

Having worked with people (men & women, gay & straight) who have been targets of harrassment and assault, I do know that there is often reluctance to ‘come forward and make public’. . .Matthew’s mother, Judy, put Matthew up onto the rally placards. Matthew was not a party to the decision.

Much like many people who are taunted, scolded, attacked and . . .there is often a strong tendency not to come forward. Of the 1400 reported cases of hate crimes, one should consider that old ‘iceberg’ notion that many crimes (and even incidents of discrimination in the workplace) go quietly away. Many fear of additional publicity, harrowing court experiences, and in the case of workplace issues, glass ceilings or worse yet reassignment or the inevitable placement on those priority lists of workforce reduction.

Do we need folk on the placards? And so, who do we choose. . .funny, witty charming folk ELLEN or brash, sometimes harsh folk like Rosie. Do we look to our clergy as allies. Or do we expect people in power to speak for us.

How do we find someone with a voice and image that will represent the diversity of the LGBT community. I would like to turn to the story of the X-Men. (LOVE IT) but in the X-men there are mutants who can pass, and then there are those who image draws attention. Much like the story of the X-Men, the GLBT community is diverse and gifted.

But EDNA and Hate Crimes are both well deserving of our attention. But the other issue is, that for some there is a prioritization. There are many in the GLBT community that may feel that these issues are not relevant to their lives.

Having worked with children for over 20 years, it is all too true that reminders are needed: hitting is not okay — and — teasing and taunting is not okay. We will always live with bullies in our lives, and it is ironic that some of the worst bullies are those who have been bullied and end up being those horrid bigots, self-righteous religious folk. With the unending work of creating a world of tolerance and acceptance of differences, constant coaching/directions, even legislation, and supportive allies will help eliminate the continuation of disparaged groups of folk. But the most empowering effort is to elevate our peers, family and friends to a level to become advocates of social justice.

Thank you Gabriel for posing the question


September 4th, 2009

I see the new Governor of Utah Gary Herbert is using a nom de plume of Gabriel Arana and writing on this blog?

Timothy Kincaid

September 4th, 2009

Ah, yes. The notorious 20/20 “expose” which pretty much argued that Matthew caused his own death and it was all just a drug deal gone wrong.

Here’s what the Shepards had to say about that “expose”

Statement from Judy and Dennis Shepard Concerning 20/20 Upcoming Report on the Murder of Matthew Shepard

On November 26, 2004, 20/20 will air a piece that promised ‘new information and facts’ about Matt’s beating and subsequent death. Dennis and I reviewed an advance copy of the show and were dismayed and saddened by the tabloid nature of the show, its lack of serious reporting of facts in evidence, and the amateurish nature of asking leading questions to the people who were interviewed.

I, too, was asked by 20/20 for an interview and agreed to do so to ensure that all of the facts were correctly stated. My only stipulation was that our legal advisor Sean Maloney, Matthew Shepard Foundation Board member and former senior White House staffer, had to be included in the interview to share his legal knowledge and expertise regarding Matthew’s murder. He was quite eloquent in stating the facts pertaining to Matt’s case, his knowledge
of hate crimes in general, and in debunking 20/20’s attempt to rewrite history. As you may or may not know, Sean was deleted from the interview entirely. The editing by 20/20 of my interview seems to leave out all of my relevant comments regarding the potential bias of the show and my deliberate restating of the facts of the case clearly ended up on the cutting room floor. My remarks were reduced to a few very personal maternal comments taken out of context to make it appear as if I agreed with 20/20’s theories. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

This same subjective editing occurred with Dave O’Malley’s interview. Dave, a Captain with the City of Laramie police force at the time, was Laramie’s lead investigator in the case and worked in tandem with Rob DeBree, the lead investigator for the Albany County Sheriff’s Department, to bring the case to trial and to provide the evidence necessary to convict both Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. (Both law enforcement officers are in complete
agreement with the facts as stated during the trials.)

Dave gave Ms. Vargas a detailed account of the case. He described the elements of hate and gay bias that were found during the extensive investigation and were substantiated in the large body of evidence collected for this case. Dave’s comments were severely edited. Perhaps they were left out because he did not give Ms. Vargas the answer(s) she needed to maintain her ‘new’ theory concerning the murder. One of the most glaring omissions in the piece was the transcript of Aaron McKinney’s in-custody interview which took place a few days after the murder. This occurred before any ‘line of defense’ had been established by legal counsel for the two defendants. Had that document been included, it would have shown an un-rehearsed and unemotional anti-gay account of the events before, during, and after leaving Matt tied to the fence.

Despite their promotional efforts to the contrary, 20/20 has not presented a ‘new’ theory. Much of this information was included in a Harpers Magazine cover story in 1999. What is new is the unfortunate downslide of a reputable news magazine show when its highly respected host retires. 20/20 has sacrificed years of professional journalistic ethics and values for a stab at revisionist history … and ratings.

Jim Burroway

September 4th, 2009

Actually, Matthew’s mother said he “smoked a little weed”. But really, how many college students haven’t?

But as far as that ABC expose is concerned, it was nothing but a self-serving attempt by Matthew’s killers to shift blame from themselves. The Laramie lead investigator was outraged and spoke out against the sensationalistic and one-sided ABC story. But it has continued to percolate as a favorite urban myth among anti-gay activists ever since.

A much better perspective is this one. Interestingly, it’s his own mother who wants to keep him from becoming larger than life.

And that’s as it should be. I think if there is to be a poster boy for hate crime legislation — which I do wholeheartedly support — Matthew Shepard is as good as any. He’s just as human as the rest of us — as is his mother, who is as much a poster girl for the same cause. If it can happen to Matt, it can happen to any mother’s son.


September 4th, 2009

I always figured thats just the hate crime story the media paid the most attention to, just like how AMBER alerts could have been named after a thousand other kidnap victims but Amber’s story became the most well known.

Emily K

September 4th, 2009

but he DID come up HIV+ in the test administered at the hospital where he was admitted. So that is correct. We don’t know how/when he contracted the disease but the point is an HIV+ gay man is indeed the poster child.

Stephen Sprinkle

September 4th, 2009

LIke it or not, most people are introduced to the issue of LGBT hate crimes murder through the story of Matthew Shepard. Acknowledging the status his memory holds is not a “deification” of him or of his family. Hands down, no one has done more for the cause of hate crimes legislation than Judy and Dennis Shepard, but does anyone really think that they were looking for national recognition the way that they and their son got it? Of course not. Matt Shepard captured the national imagination because of who we are, not so much because of any attributes of his. The focus placed on him was and is because of how we prefer white, young, slim males to other race/gender/body types. It isn’t fair, but there it is. What we must work on is our tendency in the LGBT community to tumble into the same biases that the larger population does. We must combat racism, gender discrimination, ageism, and class prejudice in all their forms. We do that in part by remembering other people who have died for being LGBT, those who may not conform to Matthew Shepard’s iconic image, especially the shockingly large number of trans people of color who are dying in American back alleys today. Meanwhile, we need to support the Shepard family in their quest to win equality for all of us.


September 4th, 2009


“I know Shepard has become a religion to many gay rights supporters,”

I’m calling your bluff. Kindly post documentation of the creed or religious texts, descriptions of the sacraments, liturgy, vestments and other indicators of a religion based on Matthew Shepherd.

Follow that up, of course, with sworn testimony from “many gay rights supporters” that attesting that they worship Matthew Shepherd.

Your premise is false, and it appears to be little more than a constructed invention fabricated solely to prop up an even less credible false choice.

It is possible to fight for both hate crimes laws, and ENDA, and Same-sex marriage, and the environment, and any other issue that GLBTQ people, and our allies, deem worthy. We are not a monolithic totalitarians your premise supposed – that would be the Republicans.


September 4th, 2009

I don’t have too much of a problem with it, except that I think that people probably incredibly underestimate the extent of hate crimes against LGBTs when we focus so much on this one most notable case. We should be inundating people with case after case so that people realize how pervasive this violent, criminal hatred is..


September 4th, 2009

“At worst, anointing Shepard the “everyday” face of gay rights is a concession to other types of bigotry — against trans men and women, racial and ethnic minorities, gay men with AIDS. At the very least, it demonstrates a willingness to appeal to mainstream tastes in order to earn political capital. It’s the type of pragmatic bargain that organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and Equality California make all the time: You give us rights, and we’ll hide the drag queens.”

This was a very interesting article, but the above paragraph contains some far-left queer-activist fallacies. “A willingness to appeal to mainstream tastes,” for instance. There’s an underlying assumption to this paragraph that drag queen types are the “real,” “authentic” gays, and that gay people who are more or less “mainstream” are somehow inauthentic, or repressed, or conformists suffering from false consciousness.

Maybe drag queens and leather daddies haven’t become “deified,” as you put it, because the vast majority of gay people do not see that kind of theatrical behavior as “authentic.” As, indeed, it’s not meant to be, right? Maybe Matthew Shepard types are more likely to be deified not because they’re more salable to straights, but because the majority of gay people, themselves, are not nearly as radical as queer activists would like them to be? There’s a kind of disdain coating the phrase “mainstream tastes,” but arguably most gay people (outside of the queer left) see the main issues facing us as marriage and ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell – i.e., commitment and service – and I don’t know how much more mainstream you can get.


September 4th, 2009

I concur with Matt on that point.

Emily K

September 4th, 2009

I also concur with Matt. I don’t know if people would call me “mainstream” when they see my yarmulke or hear some of my opinions; but by most appearances I’m one of those “mainstream-looking” gays. I don’t troll for booty, nor do I typically participate in the stereotypically queer activities… I pretty much lead a chaste life, literally and figuratively; I don’t drink or smoke and spend my days quietly working; much of the time by myself.

Granted, I’m a gay woman, not a gay man. And most of the stereotypes get hurled at gay men: obsessions with anal sex and male-male sex acts, outrageous drag queens, leather daddies, toilet sex, use of E, bathhouses, sexual addiction, “cruising”… but I am still gay, albeit a female one. I’m a part of the greater queer community too. And I guess I’m also part of the “mainstream” queer community.

Regan DuCasse

September 4th, 2009

We haven’t brought up Matt Shepard in a long time.
But I can concur with Tim K’s post. A few weeks after Matt’s killing, I sought out several of his closest friends, and eventually met Dennis and Judy nearly a year after the murder. A literary project brought us very close together and I was given access and Dave O’Malley is one I can count as a very good friend too.

Matt’s friends were not media shy, and his parents were drawn into the media fray reluctantly, but they also worked very hard at keeping the facts of Matt’s life before the public too.
His murder galvanized the nation, much in the way Emmett Till’s murder did in 1955.
Because most people in our country have always been blissfully ignorant of not only of who gay people are and where, but just HOW BRUTAL the violence can get and over the most casual of gestures, and to the MOST HARMLESS of individuals.
Emmett was a young boy, not very big. And Matt, the size of an adolescent himself.
HARMLESS, and essentially as NON THREATENING as a human being can get.
But the torturous nature of Matt’s killing, as well as his own personality as being a simply friendly person, got more people thinking that such casual violence CAN come about and be exacted on an innocent gay man.
I don’t have to tell you, to some there is no such thing as an innocent gay person, period.

As you know, Matt isn’t discussed as innocent.
Fact: Yes, he was HIV+. But how he contracted it isn’t known. It could have happened during the rape. He was only three or four years from that assault when he died.

FACT: That traumatic experience did lead to depression and panic attacks.
Fact: Matt did smoke weed very occasionally, but he was not an addict and he didn’t use hard drugs. He was on a prescription med for anxiety and even then, was reserved about how much he drank because of that.
Were he a harder drug user, Dave O’Malley would have known about it. He knew every meth head and dealer in town and Matt didn’t know any of them, nor did he associate with them. Matt’s friends were the political activists and theater people in town.

We know that young teens like Sakia Gunn, Scotty Joe Weaver and Freddy Martinez all met brutal deaths too, subsequent to Matt.

We know that perhaps their murders might have gone unnoticed were it not for Matt’s brought to the fore.
More’s the point, the judge and jury in Matt’s case worked very hard to bring his killers to justice, I think in part precisely because the whole world was watching. It was an UNPRECEDENTED sentence and verdict. Something else most are not aware of. Proper justice after the fact eludes most gay victims.

Matt’s killers were local boys his age, with fine young faces like his. The jury likely wouldn’t have wanted to go so harsh on them if no one was looking.

This cannot be said for other anti gay killers such as in the case of Sean Kennedy’s killer. How many gay bias killers are now free after serving barely cursory time?
Matt’s killing brought just how often, and how innocent the victims and how little justice there is after the fact into the consciousness of this country.
He actually was a sweet and harmless young person. He couldn’t have put up a fight if he tried. The gay folks who have been killed never DID have a chance.

That Matt is still discussed as if responsible in part for his own murder proves how much work is ahead of us.
I’m still close to the folks I mentioned and the killings of Lawrence King, and Angie Zapata as well as the suicides of Jaheem Herrera and Carl Walker Hoover brought fresh grief and more determination.
Matt’s life and death brought much needed AWARENESS of what happens, why and how.
It’s ugly, but one can’t look away.
And only until it’s so utterly brutal, graphic and undeniable is the nation forced to look
Some might resent the Shepard’s activism as exploitation.

But many resented Mamie Till having her son in a glass coffin for the world to see just what hate was willing to do to a child. The horror of the condition of his face and body, brought home the mission. If knowing what Matt went through does the same thing.
So. Be. It.
Too bad if that’s what it takes for people to WAKE THE FU*K UP!

So be it!


September 5th, 2009

Nutjobs will find all kinds of flaws in people (even victims) and portray them as frauds or even monsters. They even do that with Anne Frank and Emmett Till. There’s no surprise wingnuts keep reverberating revisionist crap like that 20/20 special to make their points.

Bruce Garrett

September 5th, 2009

They even do that with Anne Frank and Emmett Till.

Bingo. And also what Pender said about this being a very simplistic commentary. Shepard, like Frank and Till, are victims who large numbers of people, the “public” so to say, came to associate a struggle with and in one way or another relate to. Racism. Antisemitism. Homophobia. Why it’s one face that history remembers and not another in these situations is a question I don’t think anyone can answer. But nobody is “deifying” them. Remembrance and mourning, and bearing their memory while committing yourself to fight against oppression, is not deification.

And one other thing: this rhetoric about “why are we fighting for A when B is so important too” is also a tad simplistic. First of all, there is no Central Gay Agenda Committee that sets the goals and issues directives for all of us. A large community of many diverse individuals is going to have people in it that focus on one thing while others focus on something else. The single gay person living in a state with no job protections will see one pressing need, while the gay couple raising kids in a state with those protections, but no adoption or marriage rights, will see another. So much so obvious. Sometimes you fight the dog that’s barking in your face. Who is this “we” you speak of?

Secondly, the journey to equality is not a direct route from point A to point B. It is not a row of dominoes that fall down one after the other. The battle waxes and wanes across the entire landscape of society and community and family.

We are not fighting for A or B, or even C or D. We are fighting for equality. It is a fight for all those things. Sometimes it has to be more one thing then the other, but you can’t set its course with any great precision. History sets its own course. We just have to keep our eyes on the prize.

Gabriel Arana

September 5th, 2009

I’ve resigned myself to the fact that, no matter what I write, I’ll be misunderstood.

First, all the unflattering details about Matthew’s life come from Judy Shepard’s book, which came out Friday. Part of what I was trying to say is that it is not necessary for Matthew to be perfect in order for his murder to be a tragedy, or for his story to “work”; people are imperfect — it’s what it means to be human. One of the things I appreciated about his mother’s book is her frank acknowledgment of her son’s flaws. If I am guilty of “trashing Matthew Shepard’s memory,” as one blogger out there put it, then his mother is guilty of the same crime.

As far as the commentary being “simple”: the gay rights movement has finite financial and organizational resources, so in fact one does have to choose where to allocate them. It is of course possible to fight for “A and B,” but whatever resources are allocated to one cannot be allocated to the other. And my broader point is that I don’t think hate crimes legislation are worth fighting for at all.

One final point — the year before Matthew was murdered, a 15-year-old queer girl was stabbed to death on her way home form the Greenwich Village pier. She was black and from an urban area, and she was not elevated as a gay Everyman. Who society and the gay rights movement have chosen to do this with reflects our “tastes.” There are of course other reasons — the timing might be right, and if you’re going to choose someone that means necessarily excluding others.

But pointing out that Shepard is white, young, and attractive is of course not an attack on white, upper-class people (which includes me), but an acknowledgment of the fact that cultural representations reflect underlying power structures. How many times are minorities and those not in power excluded from prevailing narratives?

As far as my being called things like a far-left queer-theory crazy, or a radical, or Gary Herbert’s alter ego, all I can say is that these make the mundane details of my life seem a little less boring.


September 5th, 2009

I don’t think you are queer-theory crazy, I agree with you on hate crimes, and I don’t think you were unfair to Matthew. But the article does feel a little bit like it’s pushing a particular agenda.

For instance, most people – gay or straight – do not care about upending “underlying power structures.” The world isn’t academe.

In the original article, you refer to drag queens and leather daddies as if they would satisfy your need for Diverse gay (or “queer”) martyrs just as well as black victims would. These kind of equivalencies are ones that most people don’t make. You may see leather as = to black skin in terms of subverting “underlying power structures” but I don’t think that people really care about subverting “underlying power structures.”

And why does everything have to be about racism? Why does Matthew Shepard’s story ultimately have to be reduced to omg Racism!

Gabriel Arana

September 5th, 2009


I appreciate your response. I am of course aware that not everyone cares about “underlying power structures” — it’s just a perspective (mine). And of course I’m not straightforwardly saying that this is all about racism. It’s more a commentary on what Matthew Shepard says about us and society — about who we erase and who we promote. Notice I mentioned older gay men with AIDS, etc. — it’s broader than just racism.

Of course some people will always be tired of hearing about racism, in the same way that people with the gay rights movement would just go away and that it makes everything about excluding gay people. But I think these are valid criticisms. It’s easy for racism, homophobia, etc. not to matter to someone who doesn’t have to deal with them.

Timothy Kincaid

September 5th, 2009

but he DID come up HIV+ in the test administered at the hospital where he was admitted. So that is correct. We don’t know how/when he contracted the disease but the point is an HIV+ gay man is indeed the poster child.

Again, Emily, I ask for your source.

The ABC piece used third hand gossip and ran with it like it was fact.

Gabriel Arana

September 5th, 2009

From “The Meaning of Matthew”:

“So when the doctor told us that Matt would likely never wake, we brought up the DNR order and said that our son had expressed a desire to be an organ donor. That’s when she told us that, as part of the routine blood work the hospital performed after Matt was admitted, they’d learned that he was HIV positive.”


September 5th, 2009

Directed by Kaufman, the eight actors play themselves (enacting their attitudes and demeanors while interviewing) and several dozen interviewees distinguished by voice, manner and token pieces of clothing, while various unobtrusive video clips (motel and club signs, a deserted two-lane road at night seen through a windshield, crowds at candlelight vigils) play on a large screen disclosed behind the metal door. The acting of a few characters is exceptional: Stephen Belber’s incisive hands-on-hips impression of Matt Galloway, for instance, the comically self-assured bartender who served Shepard, Henderson and McKinney the night of the attack; and Mercedes Herrero’s respectfully nerdy portrayal of Reggie Fluty, the sheriff’s department officer who cut Shepard down from the fence. Among the many interesting bits of new information the show provides (new to me, at any rate) is that Fluty, having learned that Shepard was HIV positive, was given AZT, which made her lose 10 pounds and much of her hair. (“That is a mean, nasty medicine,” she says.)

Timothy Kincaid

September 5th, 2009

There is a very clear, and I’m inclined to think obvious, reason why the face of anti-gay violence isn’t black, female, a drag queen, or a leather Daddy. And, contrary to presumption, I don’t think that it is due to some racist, sexist, lookist, conformist attitude within the gay community.

It’s very simply because Matthew’s story doesn’t lend itself easily to a dilution of the issue.

When dealing with harsh brutality, we have an inclination to find a reason, some explanation that give us a measure of safety. Well, I wouldn’t be there, or I wouldn’t do that, or I’m not like them so, whew, I’m safe.

Take the story of the 15 year old black lesbian in New York. Was she killed solely because she’s gay or can we find some other reason to give us a sense of safety?

Maybe racism played a part. Or sexism. Or maybe because she lived in New York, a city that many see as dangerous in and of itself. Perhaps she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. And on and on. It’s easy to think, “oh, young black girls get killed in big cities every day, this is no big deal.”

But for most of America, there were no extenuating circumstances to dilute Matthew’s story. There was no way to say, “oh, young white boys get killed all the time in Wyoming, this is no big deal”.

It isn’t racist of me to say that I think it appropriate that the face of anti-gay violence is a young white boy in a rural state. The story isn’t muddled by other issues: racism, sexism, big city crime, anti-semitism, transphobia, fear of leather fetishes, or anything else. It just a pure example of a human targeted for violence because he was gay.

Which is, of course, why anti-gays cling to the 20/20 “expose” and seek so desperately to muddy the issue.

Timothy Kincaid

September 5th, 2009


thanks for the source

Emily K

September 5th, 2009

Timothy, my source was BTB’s article on the subject. Jim Burroway provides the link in a preceding comment.

And now there was something else to worry about. Just after Matt was admitted to the hospital, they conducted an HIV test as part of a standard battery of tests. Matt came up positive. He had been tested every six months for the past three years, ever since he was sexually assaulted in Morocco, but those tests always came up negative. Was this a delayed reaction? Or, more likely, was this a very recent infection? In any event, it’s probable that Matt himself didn’t even know.

Gabriel Arana

September 5th, 2009

It’s easy to think, “Oh, young black girls get killed in big cities every day, this is no big deal.”

I know you don’t think this yourself Tim, but don’t you think that sort of reasoning reflects some prejudice? Is it only a big deal when a white gay kid is killed in a rural area? Of course not; I think they’re both a big deal.

Timothy Kincaid

September 5th, 2009


Obviously it reflects prejudice. But that’s my point.

You yourself see her story and find racism in the lack of coverage. So already, just in our conversation, the issue has become diluted. Instead of our talking about anti-gay violence, the topic has shifted to prejudice.

It isn’t that she’s less of a big deal, it’s simply that – as a cultural landmark – Matthew Shepard’s story is less complicated. It doesn’t lend itself readily to a change of topic. And that is why it is a better symbol than the girl’s.

Gabriel Arana

September 5th, 2009

Interesting point. I do think it’s problematic that black victims of anti-gay violence are too “complicated” to garner public attention. Ultimately, we might be saying similar things? I agree that it “complicates” the issue and lends itself to people saying the sort of stuff we talked about, but I think that’s a problem. In a way, I am a bit resigned to it, but I wish I lived in a world in which people didn’t dismiss victims of gay violence just because they fell out of the mainstream.

Timothy Kincaid

September 5th, 2009


Consider, for a moment, if instead of Rosa Parks being sent to the back of the bus it had been a young strong male labor activist. All of a sudden there could be other “reasons” for the discrimination and the issue becomes muddied.

“Oh he’s a man, he should let women have the seat” or “he’s big, he probably frightened the other passengers” or “well, he’s an agitator, he probably was bothering others”. All of which are just covers for racism, but still take away from the message.

Is discrimination against Rosa Parks any more of a big deal than against a strong young male African American? Obviously not. But symbols work best when they are clear.

A hard-working woman who was tired at the end of the day made a very good symbol. And that is why her story resonated.

Timothy Kincaid

September 5th, 2009

I too wish I lived in a world in which people didn’t dismiss victims of gay violence just because they fell out of the mainstream. I hope that none of our readers behave that way.

I know that at BTB we all try and report stories and issues without regard to race. I know that none of us want to exclude stories or diminish the importance of anyone based on their race. I hope we are successful in that.

Gabriel Arana

September 5th, 2009

Actually, Rosa Parks was herself quite a fervent activist. The fact that she’s been portrayed as a simple woman who was just too tired to give up her seat that day is — as with Shepard — a simplification. My point is that even if the person isn’t “clear,” we make them so, and in doing this you really abandon their real biography. All people are complicated: I can handle that, but maybe the public can’t.

Timothy Kincaid

September 5th, 2009

Yes. Symbols often have little to do with the actual person who lends their name and picture to the image.

Thus we have Washington who “cannot tell a lie” about chopping down a cherry tree. A fallible founding father wasn’t of much use during certain periods of distress in the Nation.

Our community is currently in the process of mythicizing Harvey Milk. So certain less savory facts are slipping into the mist while other more noble actions and intentions are standing out.

An argument can be made that this is a disservice to the real person. But perhaps Milk himself (or Parks) would sell themselves the way that best accomplished their goals?

Would Washington be pleased with a fabrication that semi-deified him if it helped give the nation a shared identity? It’s hard to say.

Jason D

September 5th, 2009

“I guess what I think is problematic is that Matthew Shepard — the person — has very little to do with Matthew Shepard, the icon. I know Shepard has become a religion to many gay rights supporters, but how we’ve deified him says a lot about the politics of the gay rights movement. “

You hit the nail on the head the first time around: he’s an icon. Like Madonna, Jesus, Anne Frank, Joe The Plumber, Paris Hilton, and even Rosa Parks.

You mention an icon, it’s social shorthand. A way of talking about something without having to give the whole story again.

Just because Jesus and Matthew Shepard are both icons doesn’t mean that Matthew shares JC’s religious significance. Matthew Shepard is no more a religious figure than Joe My God.

I think the “diety” status almost seems like a backhanded compliment. Much how the Right likes to say that Obama is our “messiah” —- when no one on the left actually ever called him that or even suggested we worship him in any way shape or form. Pelosi said something along the lines of him being a blessing or gift — hardly the same as a messiah. I’ve gotten lots of gifts over the years, and I have yet to find myself praying to a Best Buy Gift Card even the fancier ones.

Really, Matthew Shepard has more in common with Mark Bingham, one the 9/11 victims who fought back. There isn’t a religious wrapper around either of them, but there is a sense of respect and solemnity because both were victims of horrible tragedies.


September 5th, 2009

I think that Matthew Shepard’s iconic position has far less to do with gay people than the general population at large.

He was small, obviously not very strong, and didn’t represent much of a threat to anyone. The fact that he was crucified on a fence and left freezing in the now was a picture that could resonate in many people’s mind. Because he struck a cord with straight Americans, gay folks are of course going to use him to illustrate the horrors of anti-gay violence.

Emmitt Till, Anne Frank and Matthew Shepard had something in common. Two of them were children, and though Shepard was an adult, he wasn’t much bigger than the average 8th grade boy. These young people who didn’t represent any real threat to anyone were brutally killed because they were black, Jewish or gay.

Incidentally, Emmitt Till’s original coffin is going to the Smithsonian, according to a report I heard last week on NPR.

Priya Lynn

September 5th, 2009

What Gabriel seems to be missing is that no gay person can be the gay everyman. No matter who you pick they’re not going to accurately represent a lot of people. Given that Matthew Shepard represents just as good an option as anyone else.


September 6th, 2009

The reason Matthew Shepard became a gay icon, to a degree, is simply the way he died and the coverage it received. Why does anyone become an icon? James Dean was not a great actor (3 films under his belt), neither was Marilyn Monroe, but they are considered film icons. Rock Hudson is now known more for dying of AIDS than his film roles. Would Harvey Milk be an icon if he wasn’t murdered? Should we or anyone use Matthew Shepard as a “gay everyman”, YES! Name recognition is everything. Matthew’s story is known by people from all walks of life — and that’s a good thing. I even used him in a YouTube video I did called “One Voice” @ and one of Sean William Kennedy @ —- ALL, in those two video’s, died too young because of who they were.


September 6th, 2009

I think I agree with the suggestion of the author, that perhaps more focus should be put on supporting an ENDA, rather than hate-crimes legislation.

I have yet to see any solid evidence that having hate-crimes legislation (HCL) on the books has any significant effect on the rate of hate crimes. I do think that HCL are something we should work towards, but if our goal is to help and protect LGBT people (as it should be), then ENDA would be more practical.

Alex H

September 7th, 2009

Gabriel, I see your point.

I guess every movement needs a concrete symbol/martyr to hang the cause on. Unfortunately Mathew Shepard happened to be have an image that was sell-able to a mass audience. He was white, appeared to be non-flamboyant (from pics), college student, clean-cut and seemed upper middle class. So technically he could’ve been anyone’s child.

Maybe that’s why Mathew became such an icon. I believe that our community realized that here was an opportunity to present someone who couldn’t be blamed for the attack (even though it was tried).

I certainly don’t agree with it, but I understand why it comes to be.

No one should be killed because of who they are and to me, those deaths are all important–and shouldn’t be elevated with one over the other–even if they aren’t gay related like James Bryd, Jr. who was dragged to death in 1998 because of his skin color.

Unfortunately, the news media will only pick up on stories they feel are “news” worthy and that further creates an aura about the victim.

But the Internet, blogs and sites like Box Turtle Bulletin are changing the focus. And people like yourself and others are raising those very questions, which brings up the conversation.

By talking about it we can create awareness and with awareness, we can create change.

Bruce Garrett

September 7th, 2009

It is of course possible to fight for “A and B,” but whatever resources are allocated to one cannot be allocated to the other.

And again, who is this “we” you seem to think exists. Allocate? Allocate? By whom? The same sex couple raising children? The single gay person working in a state with no job protections? The gay kid getting the crap beaten out of them in a state where justice tends to look the other way at anti-gay violence? The money goes where the people spending the money want it to go.

And that’s okay. Winning equality isn’t a matter of tipping over dominoes one after another in a certain order. it is not a single front war. We put all our eggs in one basket, that makes our struggle a smaller target for our oppressors.

And my broader point is that I don’t think hate crimes legislation are worth fighting for at all.

Would this explain your apparent disdain for all the attention Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder has gotten? Your assertion that those of us who think its worth remembering are deifying him?

Yes, it’s inconvenient when something like that gets so much attention when you want that attention directed elsewhere. Some of us would rather not see the case for same-sex marriage go before the Supreme Court just quite now either. But as I said, history set its own course. The rabble has a way of ignoring both the self appointed generals and the haters. And that’s why the rabble is eventually going to win this.

One thing that struck me reading the histories of the Stonewall Riots, was how so many older, more established gay people stood on the sidelines and were angry with the street kids and drag queens who were rioting those nights. Give us all a bad name they said, from the safety of their well established closets. But that night, a bunch of poor young outcasts had had enough. And it changed the game. Had they listened to the wiser, more tactical and strategic council of their elders who knows how much further away equality would be, then it is now.

There is no Gay Agenda in the sense that the bigots say. There are a lot of gay folk out there who are tired, very very tired, of being stepped on. And they’re not listening anymore to the people who say they should just put up with it. I don’t think you can get them to march together in lock-step. And if you could, it wouldn’t be wise.


September 7th, 2009

“I’ve resigned myself to the fact that, no matter what I write, I’ll be misunderstood.”

That is a meaningful insight, but, one that reflects not on the audience, but on the author.

However, it is clear that here, at least, the issue is not that people do not understand what you have written. People do not agree with you. Understand and agree are two very different concepts, and presuming that lack of agreement indicates lack of understanding, is wrong at best. The premise you have put forth doesn’t match people’s experiences or understanding of this issue.

The use of inaccurate or misleading expressions, like “I know Shepard has become a religion” detracts significantly from your text’s ability to persuade and convince. The red herring about race becomes simply another distraction weakening the piece.

Having read your attempts at clarification, I find your point even more muddled than before. You said:
“All people are complicated: I can handle that, but maybe the public can’t.”

But, your disparaging ‘maybe’, and your premise, reduces ‘the public’ and its response to every aspect of this issue, not just the iconization of Matthew Shepherd, to a gross over-simplification. His murder resonated for all kinds of reasons, including when it occurred, its location, the horrific brutality of it, his parents devotion, but your argument reduces everyone’s response to one factor – his skin color.

That is neither fair, nor accurate. Really, your premise does not account for, much less “handle” how complicated people are.

You wrote:”As far as the commentary being “simple”: the gay rights movement has finite financial and organizational resources, so in fact one does have to choose where to allocate them. It is of course possible to fight for “A and B,” but whatever resources are allocated to one cannot be allocated to the other. And my broader point is that I don’t think hate crimes legislation are worth fighting for at all.”

The fatal flaw here is the zero sum nature of your perception of these different goals – in the sense that your premise hangs on the assumption that advances in one area, like hate crimes, do not contribute to, but actually take away from, advances in other goals.

That is false. Each of these goals – ENDA, hate crimes, same-sex marriage, address specific expressions of the same ugly social illness, the same prejudice. Hate crimes laws send the message ‘prejudice is not an excuse’, and bear in mind, hate crimes laws already apply to people of color, one might conclude that you only oppose broadening those laws to include GLBTQ people. Equal employment laws send a parallel message ‘prejudice is not an excuse’ regarding employment practices. Each advance in any arena strengthens the others, because each advance, in hate crimes laws, employment, marriage, etc. sends the same core message “prejudice is not an excuse”.

Something else to consider as well – advances in the civil liberties for one minority contribute to advances in the civil liberties for others, and, advances in prejudice against one minority, bolster prejudice against other minorities. Clergy of color, for example, who teach homophobia are simultaneously encouraging racism, because bigots of any kind recognize that all prejudice is the same emotion, only the target changes.

By the way, where is the evidence for your assertion about people worshiping Matthew Shepherd? You made an “I know” statement, and I for one would like to see the evidence to back it up.


September 7th, 2009


I think you have missed the really huge difference, the one factor that truly made Matthew’s murder stand out.

Bear in mind, that there had been, and continue to be many white, young, attractive, gay men who get killed, often brutally, and their stories didn’t get as much attention either, as well as people of color, women, and transgendered people who are bashed. I know of a couple of victims just as telegenic as Matthew Shepherd, just as “mainstream”, whose deaths were ignored.

There was one factor that was novel, new, unique, and exactly on time.

For the first time, America noticed the parents. Matthew’s parents were on tv, expressing their love, their pain, and most of all – they accepted Matthew as he was. That was new. That was different.

And it came at a time when society was just starting to realize that GLBTQ people actually had parents, and that some of those parents actually loved them. PFLAG had been around for awhile, but it was finally being acknowledged in the mainstream culture.

Suddenly, instead of some nameless adult telling the camera about his dead “friend”, Americans saw a mom and a dad grieving for their gay son. It dramatically reframed the issue. Fag-bashing wasn’t something that only happened to anonymous men in dark alleys, it was something that happened to someone’s kid, grown up kid yeah, but still, someone’s kid.

Americans finally saw what we all knew – GLBTQ people come from families, there are families who love us and grieve when we are murdered.

And frankly, for a lot of GLBTQ people at the time, it was a first as well; the first time we saw parents, the peers of our parents, grieving the death of their gay son.

Richard W. Fitch

September 18th, 2009

I have just learned that WBC will be staging their “Love-Ins” in Indianapolis on Sept 24. Two of the three locations are in my neighborhood. First they will be on the south side; then at the Jewish Community Center and later at North Central HS to protest another production of “The Laramie Project”. A “Phelps-A-Thon” has already been started to support the GSA at NCHS and to support the Indiana Youth Group, a United Fund supported organization for LGBT teens. I’m not sure how I will stomach seeing them ‘up close and personal’ but will definitely give my support to the counter-protest.

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