The problem with martyrs

There must be something wrong with me.

This morning there was a very nice piece in “Morning Edition” all about how far the LGBT cause has come in a remarkably short span of American history.  And indeed, we have come a very long way, a fact for which I am truly, deeply grateful.  It was an upbeat story and one that you’d think would simply have made me happy.

But no.  Because, in discussing events that changed the public’s perception, it included this:

In Wyoming, Matthew Shepard was tortured and murdered for being gay.

If I were smart, I’d merely say to myself “true enough” and let it go.  But (as regular readers probably already know) I’m just not that smart.

What happened to Matthew Shepard was absolutely, undeniably horrifying.  I don’t think it’s possible to dispute that (unless you’re contemporary America’s closest thing to Joseph Goebbels).  The monstrosity of the crime in unambiguous.

What is not unambiguous is that Shepard was tortured and murdered for being gay.  From an interview with ABC News from a few years ago:

But according to [killer Aaron] McKinney, when he encountered Shepard at the Fireside Lounge, he saw an easy mark.

McKinney told “20/20” Shepard was well-dressed and assumed he had a lot of cash.

Shepard was sitting at the bar, McKinney recalls. “He said he was too drunk to go home. And then he asked me if I’d give him a ride. So I thought, yeah, sure, what the hell,” according to McKinney.

All three got in the front seat of McKinney’s pickup, and Henderson took the wheel. McKinney told police that at some point Shepard reached over and grabbed his leg. In response, McKinney said, he hit him with his pistol. “I was getting ready to pull it on him anyway,” he said.


Asked directly whether he targeted and attacked Shepard because he was gay, McKinney told Vargas, “No. I did not. … I would say it wasn’t a hate crime. All I wanted to do was beat him up and rob him.”

Let me be clear about a few things.  The recollections of a drug-addled murderer are probably the very picture of unreliability.  Further, it is reasonable to be suspicious that a murderer would try to paint his actions in the least-horrible light possible, and “it was the drugs” is marginally less appalling than “I hate gay people.”  Finally, I’m not entirely sure the unwanted pass didn’t trigger at least some homophobic rage on the part of McKinney.

Yet with all that said, to my eye it is far too simplistic to say that Shepard was tortured and murdered because he was gay.  Was his gayness a factor?  Quite possibly.  But the picture is much muddier than the cut-and-dried hate crime explanation.

But that’s not the story we tell now.  The story we tell is that Shepard was targeted and killed for no reason other than his homosexuality.  Made legendary by The Laramie Project, the crime against him has become emblematic of anti-gay hate crimes nation-wide (a genuine problem, to be sure), and he has been made a martyr.

What happens, though, is that we who work to promote LGBT rights then have an interest in maintaining that narrative. unsullied by anything that may emerge to complicate or contradict it.  If Matthew Shepard becomes a icon around which we rally, and an image we use to win hearts and minds, then we then must labor to keep pure the notion that homophobia killed him.  If the truth is messier, then discovering the truth suddenly because something we don’t really want.

I had similar reservations with regard to Tyler Clementi and the conviction of his former roommate Dharun Ravi.  Clementi became the famous face of suicide as a result of anti-gay bullying, a wave of which seemed to emerge into the national consciousness all at once and which spurred the creation of the “It Gets Better” project (of which I am largely supportive).  But (and of course there’s a “but”) by every account I read of him, Clementi was a socially isolated young man whose mental health was pretty much an unknown.  While I’d bet anyone that Ravi’s actions sure as hell didn’t help, it’s just too easy to call his death an unalloyed result of anti-gay bias.

Massive social movements raise up iconic figures who take on mythic, saintly status.  I would be wiser to dive into a vat of boiling sulfuric acid than to imply that Rosa Parks was anything other that a hero of historic proportions.  (For the record, I am not in the slightest bit inclined to.)  The gay rights movement is no different.  Shepard and Clementi have (along with Harvey Milk, another man dead tragically before his time) joined our pantheon.  But it makes me uneasy when I see the important details of untidy human stories blasted away because it makes for a more compelling, moving story.  Even if it helps a cause I support with my whole heart, I’d rather have the truth than a myth.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. Based on the circumstances, I’m willing to round up to “killed for being gay.” Shepard wasn’t killed for being gay in the same sense as some heroic LGBT activists in Uganda, who died for activism on behalf of gay rights, but it’s pretty clear that Shepard was the victim of a hate crime.

    I say this primarily because McKinney initially offered a “gay panic” defense when asked why he beat Shepard and left him to die. That proves he knew Shepard was gay. It’s also an official acknowledgement from the killer that Shepard’s behavior/orientation moved him to commit murder. I don’t care whether the killer recanted that statement, once he and his lawyer figured out that he was a lot less sympathetic as an accused hate criminal than as a local thug in a robbery gone wrong.

    As for the drugs, McKinney claims he and his accomplice were high, but the girlfriends of the two men testified that neither man was intoxicated that night.

    • I think part of what Russell is getting at (and Russell, please correct me if I’m wrong), is less whether Shepard was attacked for reasons other than being gay, although he cites possible evidence that might suggest he was not necessarily attacked for that reason. Rather, is point seems to be that when we put so much weight on a narrative to serve certain political purposes, we invest ourselves very heavily in that story being true, so heavily, in fact, that it becomes hard to accept contrary evidence.

      I think I am perhaps garbling Russell’s point.

      • We all agree on the basic facts of the Shepard case. There’s no major contrary evidence here. He was at a bar, he accepted a ride home with two guys who beat him to death and left him tied to a fence post. He might have thought he was cruising. His murderers might have taken advantage of his assumption to target him.

        One those guys plead “gay panic” which is redneck for “hate crime.” The sheer brutality of the beating–the degree of overkill–suggests that this was more than an instrumental crime of robbery. If they just wanted him dead, they could have shot him, but they pistol whipped him to death.

        Robbery or hate crime is a false dichotomy. Robbery is often an element of hate crimes. The most common type of hate crime I hear about involves groups of youths in New York who get together to beat and rob members of groups they despise: immigrant day laborers, gays, transpeople, etc.

        • The sheer brutality of the beating–the degree of overkill–suggests that this was more than an instrumental crime of robbery.

          A lot of crime is sheer brutality incarnate. I’m not sure that it follows that any given case is suggestive of it being more than an instance of what it is.

          Sometimes people are robbed at gunpoint and the guy with the gun takes the money and pops into a waiting car, no muss, no fuss. Sometimes people are robbed at gunpoint and they resist and the perpetrator beats them to death with a tire iron because the perpetrator is just as hopped up on fight or flight hormones as the victim was.

          I’m not generally a fan of hate crime accusations unless they’re pretty baldly obvious and supported by substantial evidence of a pattern of targeted behavior.

        • “We all agree on the basic facts of the Shepard case.”

          Yeah, I’m not particularly investing in proving that his murder wasn’t a hate crime.

      • Pierre, though I agree with Lindsay, I don’t think these two points are necessarily in conflict. Regardless of the truth of the Shepard case, we should never get overly invested in these narratives. Reality is often, though not always, much messier.

        • Jonathan,

          I agree with you (and with Lindsay). In fact, I should have prefaced my comment with, “I might have written Lindsay’s comment if she hadn’t beat me to it.”

    • I would go for the “rounding up” part, and in fact, a step further. Although the quotation could have us believed he was not targeted for being gay, he got assaulted when put his hand on the guy’s leg (according to the killer’s story). So what was perhaps a simple assault and robbery seems to have escalated because Shepard was gay. For me, that’s good enough to qualify under the (admittedly clunky) phrase “killed for being gay”.

    • I certainly appreciate your perspective, Lindsay. Perhaps I wasn’t as clear as I should have been.

      I don’t have any real doubt that Shepard’s being gay was a factor in his getting killed. I can see very easily how he might have thought he was cruising (as you say), made a pass that he assumed would be reciprocated, and gotten killed for it. I just think the story is more complicated than that, and if we focus solely on one aspect in an effort to use the story to change minds then we run the risk of losing that unreliable support when facts emerge to complicate the story.

      • “I just think the story is more complicated than that, and if we focus solely on one aspect in an effort to use the story to change minds then we run the risk of losing that unreliable support when facts emerge to complicate the story.”

        I won’t and can’t disagree with a word of that.

        However, I’m also increasingly weary of kowtowing to our ideological opponents… if someone’s best argument against supporting the broader gay rights movement is that Shepard might have been killed for reasons having nothing to do with his sexual orientation… I’m going to respond with a big, “Meh.”

        Of course, it is easy for me to say that what with all my heterosexual privilege and not having to deal with the real world repercussions of “Meh”-ing people.

        • I’m just leery of using an example like Shepard’s as too much of a rallying point, because I think the story is complicated. If these additional details surface, does the impact and power of the narrative get lost? If he serves as a martyr, anything that calls into question that idea then must be denied or downplayed.

          • Good point. Raising him up to martyr status is problematic… though it is problematic whenever it is done (see people who want to focus on Dr. King’s supposed womanizing, no doubt a problematic behavior, as if it is a valid counter to calls for ongoing attention to civil rights for people of color). But I also don’t think supporters of gay rights should avoid talking about Shepard. We just shouldn’t hang our hat on his unfortunate death.

          • The example of King that you cite is illustrative. As I said in the OP, I don’t think you can have a massive social movement without some people taking on mythic or saintly status. It takes a certain cult of personality to lead one, and you’re going to have high-profile cases of people who have suffered the injustice that you’re fighting.

            I don’t think my goal would be to prevent this kind of this from happening, more that we remember that stories are often more complicated than lends itself to a useful narrative, and that we should exercise some caution before we rally too loudly around any given person/event.

          • Actually, this reminded me of something my 5-year-old was asking me. I was talking about the era of de-institutionalization of the developmentally disabled, and he asked “Who did that?” I said, “the mommies and the daddies.” He said, “No, who DID it?” We went back and forth a few times until he clarified: “Who was the Martin Luther King, Jr.?” (He always adds the “jr.”) It occurred to me then that it was striking how this was a movement without either a martyr or leader. Maybe certain members of the Kennedy family, somewhat. I’m reading a biography of FDR right now, and it certainly wasn’t he. It’s striking how tangential his disability was to his later life, actually.

            I have a bit of uneasiness with this, too. First of all, we have enough trouble figuring out our own motivations for our actions. I don’t think we’re much better at figuring out anyone else’s. And people’s statements about their own motivations are almost certainly useless and self-serving.

            Second, it doesn’t seem that much worse of a crime to kill and torture someone because he was gay than to kill and torture someone wantonly. Isn’t the point the utter disrespect for human life, and *that specific* human life? Would the crime not have been as wrong if Matthew Shepard had not been gay and it was a straight boy who had been tortured and killed? I understand arguments about how it creates fear in the community, but so do murders that are not driven by hate.

            A murder done for some property the person has (e.g., dark skin, sexual orientation) doesn’t seem all that different than murders for other properties the person has that do not mark off an ethnic group or gender or race (e.g., he reminded me of the teacher I hated so much in elementary school,” or whatever). Both seem horribly arbitrary.

            Sometimes there is no other way to describe the form of intimidation. Burning a cross on a lawn, hanging a noose from a tree, Westboro, etc.

          • Rose,

            I suppose the emphasis on the motivation for the murder, as I see it, is less about understanding or punishing the killers, and more about highlighting the reality of homophobia in America.

            Now, that doesn’t seem to be how it was used in the piece Russell quotes and, in that context, I think it is indeed troublesome. But also ironic. It likely IS true that Matthew Shepard’s death did change people’s feelings on the gay rights movement; but that might be so because of an exaggerated or skewed narrative around his death.

          • If these additional details surface, does the impact and power of the narrative get lost?

            I think you’re grossly underestimating the average person’s ability to ignore facts that don’t fit his preferred narrative.

    • “I’m willing to round up to “killed for being gay.” ”

      This is not “Law and Order: SVU”. You don’t get to “round up” to something and then pretend that the rest of the case was irrelevant.

      “It’s also an official acknowledgement from the killer that Shepard’s behavior/orientation moved him to commit murder. ”

      Except he was gonna commit violent, murderous assault *anyway*. This was not “I hate gays, I saw a gay guy in a bar and knew he was gay so I lured him out into the woods and killed him because I hate gays”.

      Which is kind of an important point if you’re trying to use this as proof that America is inherently homophobic.

      • “Which is kind of an important point if you’re trying to use this as proof that America is inherently homophobic.”

        Is anyone doing that? Or are people holding up Shepard as an example of the very real threat that homophobia is? Those are *very* different things.

      • This is a conversation in ordinary English, not a court or a TV show. Rounding up is perfectly acceptable. Based on the facts of the case, it is accurate to say that Shepard was killed for being gay, or acting gay, or making gay advances. It wasn’t your stereotypical anti-gay killing, but the label is still accurate.

        The murderer still maintains that Shepard made a pass at him, even as he tries to downplay homophobia as a motive for murder. The physical evidence reveals that the murderers were very, very angry at Shepard. If they simply wanted to rob him, why not just take his money at gunpoint? If they wanted to kill him so he couldn’t ID them, why not just shoot him? Most robberies, drug-fueled or otherwise, don’t end with the victim being tied to a post and pistol-whipped until his brainstem is pulp. Meth alone can’t account for that.

        • ” Rounding up is perfectly acceptable. ”

          Except not, because this case is being used to justify harsher sentences for assaults where homophobia is claimed. It’s being used to justify lawsuits over perceived homophobic behavior in workplaces, and blanket “termination for hate speech” policies. It is being used as a symbol of how ingrained homophobia in American culture needs harsh root-and-branch treatment.

          So if, y’know, it wasn’t actually *about* him being gay, well, that’s kind of a problem.

          • Saying, truthfully, that Shepard was killed because he was gay will have no effect on the sentences of his murderers. The murderers are already behind bars, serving double life sentences.

          • And it’s not the sentences of the murderers that we’re worried about here.

        • Is this Lindsay Beyerstein, maximizing consequentialist? In any event, I think you are right, the manner of Shephard’s death suggests a motive that goes beyond just robbery, or even the desire not to leave a witness. More was at work than just sociopathic indifference to Shephard as a fellow “rational being” and “end-in-himself” (as the Kantians would have it).

  2. Okay, since you can’t just let something go, I can’t either. I have a quibble with this:

    “What happened to Matthew Shepard was absolutely, undeniably horrifying. I don’t think it’s possible to dispute that (unless you’re contemporary America’s closest thing to Joseph Goebbels).”

    I imagine that Phelps would agree that the killing of Shepard was undeniably horrifying… he’d just chalk it up as appropriate divine retribution for Shepard’s “sin”.

    (Do I need to clarify that I’m not supporting the Phelps perspective? Probably not? Maybe? Well, consider it so clarified.)

    • I imagine that Phelps would agree that the killing of Shepard was undeniably horrifying

      I’m afraid I must disagree, my friend. I have no trace of doubt in my mind that, if gays were sent off to death camps (again), Phelps and his ilk would be the very first to sign up for guard duty. And showings of The Laramie Project have certainly been targets of the Phelps clan before. I see no reason to assume that he would draw the line where any decent human being would.

      • Perhaps I didn’t explain myself well. I would think that Phelps would think that the type of death Shepard endured is horrifying. He would also think it is exactly the type of thing gay people should endure… because it is so horrifying. I’m certainly not trying to paint Phelps in a good light here.

        But, ya know, this isn’t really a rabbit hole I want go any further down.

      • Phelps and his Clan are as much cynical profiteers as they are actual homophobes. They’d sign up in a heartbeat, but only if the job paid well.

    • How does this post contribute to a useful discussion?

        • The comment. This is not useful discussion; this is feelgood slagoff.

          • It probably depends on how you define “useful” (and, I guess, how you define “feelgood slagoff”). I’ll certainly admit that it was tangential to the OP.

  3. Am I misremembering when I think that Sheppard’s killing used or even pioneered the “gay panic” defense?

    • It did not pioneer the gay panic defense. That was a mainstay for years. It’s probably fair to say that its use in the Shepard case inspired some jurisdictions to prohibit the use of that defense.

  4. i’m with you in spirit and all, doc, but people need heroes and gods and martyrs. for whatever reason, being a victim is a very powerful draw in our culture, and martyrs have great meaning. maybe we can blame that on jesus or some kinda dna issue leaking into the culture, but it is what it is.

    learning how to manipulate these symbols in the least destructive way possible is the main cause of any advocacy group.

  5. Rosa Parks was a saint. The first woman who sat down on the bus, and didn’t move when the white man told her to? Unwed mother before the year was done.

    • The pregnant teenager’s name was Claudette Coleman. She was a very impressive person in her own right. She was passed over as a test case for bus segregation for PR reasons. The lawyers felt, no doubt wisely, that a pregnant teen would be a less sympathetic standard-bearer than a pillar of the community like Rosa Parks.

  6. “i’m with you in spirit and all, doc, but people need heroes and gods and martyrs. for whatever reason, being a victim is a very powerful draw in our culture, and martyrs have great meaning. maybe we can blame that on jesus or some kinda dna issue leaking into the culture, but it is what it is.”

    Yes, let’s all find an excuse to throw rationality and thought out the window in the quest for: revenge, justice, etc. Nothing wrong with that.

    Frankly, Russell, you’re right. The important thing is the truth.

    I’ve never been a fan of “hate crimes”. Frankly, I don’t care what the motivation for a crime. The crime is the offense. Murder is murder, rape is rape, etc. That someone commited a crime because they fear/hate/etc. another person MAY have validity in sentencing, but it shouldn’t be a separate crime.

    • I think it makes sense as a different kind of crime. Killing someone because of the group they belong to is a threat – implicit or explicit – directed at every member of that group, and makes you a danger to every member of that group, and is thus a bigger issue than most other crimes.

      • I sort of agree, but as I mentioned above, you’re in dicey thoughtcrime territory here. Because you don’t know for sure if the threat there is implicit or explicit or just inferred.

        Now, there are obvious cat is obvious moments when there really is no reasonable doubt that the crime in question is a hate crime (neo-Nazi guy has several YouTube videos extolling the deficiencies in (fill in the gap) race, neo-Nazi guy brutally kills member of (fill in the gap) race, neo-Nazi guy is found with a cell phone video of him taunting the victim during the murder with racial epithets).

        But there is a difference between someone who would kill just anybody because they’re (fill in the gap) race, someone who is a racist and happens to kill someone who is a member of (fill in the gap) race, someone who says something racist while they’re happening to kill someone who is a member of (fill in the gap) race, and someone who just brutally kills somebody.

        You can be a racist and not be a murderer, or even a potential murderer, or you could be a murderer but the act of murder is really disjointed from the fact that you’re a racist.

        • If you’re already a murderer, you’re already a murderer. Enhancements don’t make a lot of sense, which is why James Byrd never made sense to me as a reason for hate crimes legislation. Everyone involved already got either death or life without parole. But if you spray-paint anti-semitic slogans on a synagogue or anti-muslim ones on a mosque, that’s worse than random graffiti, and the penalty should be adjusted accordingly.

          • Mike,

            While tagging someone else’s permission should be illegal, does adding extra penalty for the message associated with it run afoul of the 1st?

          • Errr… “… someone else’s property without permission…”

          • But how do we distinguish between “dumbassery” and “hate”? If some 13-year-old spray paints “Eff tha Jews” on the side of a synagogue because he correctly suspects it will get the biggest rise, but there’s no reason that he couldn’t have gone with “Eff tha police” instead, do we give him extra punishment? What does that get us?

            And if we instead let the doofus off and reserve the use of the law only against real hate (ex. the next guy to spraypaint the exact same graffiti is a skinhead KKK’er calling for race war), isn’t that unequal application of the law?

          • I think that punishing credible threats more harshly is well within the law.

          • Is “Eff tha Jews” a credible threat?

            Is “Eff tha police” one?

          • Is “Kill the Muslims” one in an atmosphere where there has been an elevated level of violence and threats against Muslims? Even if the perpetrator is some ineffectual coward who in person couldn’t frighten anybody, doesn’t the fear he caused with his actions argue that it’s a more serious crime than spray-painting “Johnny and Becky 4eva”?

          • I dunno. You made some good arguments to this end in my Amish hate crime piece, but “the fear he caused with his actions argue that it’s a more serious crime” sounds kind of like the same kind of logic that has lead us to some weird places in the WoT – that is, treating these a-holes like “soldiers”, according them boogeyman status, and bringing out the big guns against them, sometimes has the perverse outcome of making them seem badder and more important/formidable than they are (common criminals & dumbasses); and this makes US do dumb things.

            “You’re not a ‘Grand Dragon’, you’re an a-hole with some spray paint, Buford. Sentence: six months cleanin’ toilets at the local ADL branch.”

          • I agree with Mike. Is it really better to kill an unloved homeless person and not get even be suspected of having committed the crime, then kill someone whose death causes other people to fear?

            The crime is directed at someone. James Byrd was targeted because he was black, yes. And there is a way in which that can be construed as being targeted at all black people, but there’s an important way in which it does not. Just as there’s an important way in which I, as an American Jew, was not targeted by Daniel Pearl’s killers. They chose to kill him for the ways in which he was similar to me, but they didn’t kill me. And they did kill him. And that seems very much why what they did was wrong.

            Adam Lanza presumably killed his victims in part because they were children, and it certainly created a hell of a lot of fear in the community. But what he did does not seem best described as a hate crime. It is no more a hate crime than the Aurora shootings.

            Graffiti on the other hand, is targeting those who see it and live near it. Cross-burning, nooses, etc. It is telling those people that they are threatened. There was anti-Semitic grafitti on our synagogue when I was a child. I would say that it was targeting everyone at the synagogue, but it was not targeting Jews who live in, say, Chicago. (Actually, I didn’t experience very much fear, I have to say). While one murder seems awful no matter what, hateful graffiti is very different than A.S. luvs N.C. 2gether 4ever 6cess, and hanging a noose from a tree seems quite different than hanging a hanging flower basket.

          • Rose,

            This is where several principles I hold dearly conflict with one another.

            I am an unabashed defender of the right to free speech and disagree with even some of the most oft-cited and accepted restrictions upon it.

            I believe that we too often ignore psychological and emotional violence because it is more difficult to see than physical violence.

            I believe that racism, anti-semitism, sexism, and other forms of identity-based group hatred are real and damaging, the extent of which we don’t even fully realize*.

            When these come together on issues involving hate speech, I get quite flustered…

            * I saw a speaker reference a study that found that African-American men, even after correcting for demographic factors like income, profession, education, and geography and personal factors like height, weight, diet, and exercise, had worse health outcomes than European-American men, with the difference being attributed to the psychological stress they incurred living in a racist society. If this study is indeed true and the effects are widespread… holy shit.

          • As I think I have said before, I am pretty close to a First Amendment absolutist crazyperson. While I believe there are certainly things people should refrain from saying/doing – out of simple courtesy – I am very, very leery of having the government make value judgements on speech/thought/emotion (and I believe, as the courts have indicated, that there are many things that are “speech”/expression that aren’t actually words).

            Mike’s point about “atmosphere” is well-taken. Though I think at this point the KKK is more risible than anything (so in many cases, pointing and laughing is a better remedy than more punitive ones) – there were obviously times in American history when they were as close to an American Al Qaeda as we’ve ever seen. Maybe at those times, different laws w/r/t speech are justified. I just don’t know.

        • I’d grant some legitimacy to the other side of the argument IF I actually saw the enforcement of hate crimes applied evenly. I rarely see “nonwhite” crimes against “whites” labeled as hate crimes; it’s always the other way….

        • Hate crimes laws make the most sense to me in the context of a jurisdiction where the law enforcement/legal community is apt to look the other way/condone violence against a certain subgroup. If you’re a gay person living in [insert whatever location you feel best represents the seat of homophobic thought], and you get the tar beaten out of you, can you rely on the local police department to investigate and the DA to prosecute? I can see a role in federal hate crimes legislation in securing justice for victims who otherwise cannot look to the local or state level for redress.

          • There’s also that Amish guy. Ordinarily, trimming a beard is not a serious crime. But, that’s a violation unto-the-level of physical abuse in the community. And thus, it’s worth treating more seriously.

          • disc: I know someone who had business dealings with that guy. Not that it matters, but disclosure! (also, not that you’ll believe me).

      • Killing someone because of the group they belong to is a threat – implicit or explicit – directed at every member of that group, and makes you a danger to every member of that group, and is thus a bigger issue than most other crimes.

        The flip side of that is that’s not a threat to members of other groups. Whereas just killing a random person constitutes a smaller threat to the entire population. Mathematically, it’s a wash—a murder either causes a high amount of fear per capita in a small proportion of the population, or a low amount of fear per capita in the entire population.

        • An example worked out: Suppose that a population consists of 10,000 members of a minority group and 90,000 members of a majority group, and that there are 100 randomly selected murders per year. Members of both the majority and minority groups have a 1/1,000 chance of being murdered each year. Let’s create a measure called the murder fear index. It’s just the sum of each person’s risk of being murdered in a given year, or 100,000 * 1/1,000 = 100 in this case.

          Now let’s add 100 more randomly selected murders per year. That gives everyone a 1/500 chance of being murdered in a given year. Multiply that by the population and we get a murder risk index of 200.

          Suppose that instead of adding 100 randomly selected murders, we add 100 murders specifically targeting the minority group. That gives members of the minority group a (10 + 100)/10,000 risk of being murdered, or 11/1,000. Members of the majority group still have a 1/1,000 risk of being murdered. The murder fear index is now 10,000 * 11/1,000 + 90,000 * 1/1,000 = 200.

          The murder fear index is obviously just the number of murders committed per year. It doesn’t matter how the murderers target their victims, because it always works out the same. No matter how it’s distributed, the sum of the danger to each individual in the population is equal to total number of murders.

          • I don’t think that accurately reflects how real people respond to real threats.

  7. I agree the truth is important, but when a person dies, their legacy belongs in a sense to the loved ones they leave behind. It’s important to note that Matt’s parents decided to become activists for gay rights and hate crimes legislation in response to their son’s murder. To me that makes it pretty much OK that Matt Shepard’s memory is used in the ways it has been.

  8. The making of martyrs takes the already-crucified from their crosses, not to mourn them or bury them, but to hang them upon higher crosses and carry them about in morbid parades, ghastly tokens serving some cause, to justify the deeds of those who carry them about.

  9. Doc, I’ve struggled with this all day. I hear what you say; Shepard’s murderers were looking for a mark. That’s not looking to commit murder, however.

    I think you’re right in one way; they weren’t out looking to bash Shepard because he was gay, they were looking to commit violent crime because they wanted to hurt. But that hurt morphing into torture and murder the way it did?

    Hatred was there.

    Walk in safety, light, and love, Doc, for the good man that you are.

  10. Good points Russell. You are absolutely right that people create myths out of stories where the truth is bent to serve a purpose. The end result may be worthy but the getting there can be intellectually dishonest.

    Question: If there are hate crimes, what are love crimes? I expect love crimes would be different than crimes of passion/love. And would Edgar Allen Poe’s “Tell Tale Heart” be a hate crime because the murderer detested the eye of the victim?

  11. I’ve never got the sense that these new revelations about the Shepard Murder were anything besides revisionist history, right up there with “The civil war wasn’t really about slavery.”

    I agree that not every murder of a gay person can be chalked up to homophobia case closed. Lawrence King’s behavior toward the classmate who shot him was likely sexual harassment, for example. But Matthew Shepard was tortured to death by men he’d never before met. These men knew he was gay, chose to target him because he was gay, and subjected him to brutal and deadly violence because he was gay. The fact that they stole his wallet doesn’t really change that.

  12. What it boils down to is that as far as I believe all martyrs are made this way. Maybe I’m being too cynical.

    • I think you’re probably right. But since this is “my” movement (if you will), I’m more apt to be critical of it than I would a movement I can only observe as an outsider.

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