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.