The myth is that Matthew Shepard was martyred by redneck homophobes. A stunning new book by a gay journalist debunks this.
This week it became obvious that America’s sexual revolution has been built on lies. Three of the cases which transformed the legal system and altered the moral ecosystem are based on fiction: Roe v Wade, which became the foundation stone for abortion rights; Lawrence v Texas, which decriminalised sodomy and led inexorably to same-sex marriage; and the murder of Matthew Shepard, which transformed disapproval of homosexual acts into hateful homophobia.
This was underscored this week with the publication of The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard, by gay journalist Stephen Jimenez.
The death of Shepard, a gay 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, has become a symbol of American homophobia and a shibboleth of the anti-gay bullying movement. In October 1998 he accepted a lift from two locals, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. They drove him to a field, robbed him, pistol-whipped him, tied him to a fence and left him to die.
This vicious incident has become the most notorious anti-gay hate crime in American history. Shepard became a martyr: a gentle soul who had been murdered simply because he was gay. The reaction was immense.
In 2009 President Obama signed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a federal law against gay hate crimes which was named after Matthew Shepard. Elton John and Lady Gaga have sung about him. Three films have been made about his death. A play, “The Laramie Project”, has been performed more than 2,000 times around the world. The first openly gay NBA Player, Jason Collins, wore the number 98 in his honour during the 2012-2013 season. A foundation perpetuates his memory “to replace hate with understanding, compassion, and acceptance”.
But in a book published this week, Jimenez debunks this hagiography. After interviewing more than a hundred people, including the murderers, he has concluded that the murder had little to do with Shepard’s sexuality and a lot to do with drugs. America’s most reviled hate crime was not a hate crime after all.
It turns out that Shepard was a regular crystal meth user and a meth dealer, that his killer, McKinney, had been on a meth bender, that McKinney and possibly Henderson dabbled in gay sex, that McKinney had partied with Shepard and had even had had sex with him. It is a seamy story, full of gut-wrenching violence. But it is not a story of homophobic rednecks torturing and murdering a refined, gentle gay activist.
Writing in The Advocate, the leading US gay paper, Aaron Hicklin asks, “did our need to make a symbol of Shepard blind us to a messy, complex story that is darker and more troubling than the established narrative?”
But the hallowing of Matthew Shepard is just the latest chapter in a mythology of grievance and sexual oppression.
In 2003 the US Supreme Court struck down a Texas statute which criminalised sodomy. This effectively made homosexuality legal throughout the US. And as Justice Scalia noted in his dissent in Lawrence v Texas, it opened the door to redefining marriage: “Today’s opinion dismantles the structure of constitutional law that has permitted a distinction to be made between heterosexual and homosexual unions, insofar as formal recognition in marriage is concerned.”
But the case was built on the lies of activists. In 1998, police received a report that "a black male [was] going crazy with a gun" in a suburb on the outskirts of Houston. Four officers burst into an apartment and found 55-year-old John Lawrence, a white man, and a 31-year-old black man, Tyron Garner. The evening ended with the men, both openly homosexual, being charged with “deviate sex” and held overnight in jail before being released.
Gay activists heard about the incident and took the case to the Supreme Court. The rest is history.
Last year, in his book Flagrant Conduct, Dale Carpenter, a gay law professor at the University of Minnesota, revealed that the conventional narrative is false. The police and Lawrence and Garner were all telling lies, for different reasons. The police charged the two men because they were cantankerous and flagrantly gay.
But the two men were not having sex. Originally they pleaded “not guilty”. Only when activists pointed out that theirs was an ideal case did they plead “no contest”. “From the beginning,” their lawyer said, “we did not want to complicate the case by dealing with the facts. We said, ‘Whatever the police said, we will not challenge it.’” Carpenter observes, “Lawrence advanced as a case because nobody wanted to know what the underlying facts were.”
And then there is the notorious tragedy of Roe v. Wade. The real name of Jane Roe is Norma McCorvey, who later became a pro-life activist and a Catholic. In 1969 she was a troubled 21-year-old who had discovered that she was inconveniently pregnant for the third time. She hardly knew what an abortion was, but she found lawyers who wanted to test the Texas law. She has told the story many times:
“The affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court didn't happen the way I said it did, pure and simple. I lied! Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffey [her lawyers] needed an extreme case to make their client look pitiable. Rape seemed to be the ticket. What made rape even worse? A gang rape! It all started out as a little lie, but my little lie grew and became more horrible with each telling.
“Not only did I lie, but I was lied to. I did not come to the Supreme Court on behalf of a class of women. I wasn't pursuing any legal remedy for my unwanted pregnancy. I did not go to the federal courts for relief. I met with Sarah Weddington to find out how I could obtain an abortion. She and Linda Coffey said they didn't know where to get one. Sarah already had an abortion but she lied to me just like I lied to her! She knew where to get one, obviously, but I was of no use to her unless I was pregnant. Sarah and Linda were looking for somebody, anybody, to use to further their own agenda. I was their most willing dupe.”
"Very few things happen at the right time, and the rest do not happen at all,” Mark Twain wrote. “The conscientious historian will correct these defects". Which is exactly what activists for abortion right and gay rights have done. They drafted scripts of pathos and injustice and then did a talent search for actors to play the part. Convenient facts were highlighted; inconvenient ones were suppressed.
Does this make a difference? Even if the facts were massaged, the courts of law and public opinion had already reached a decision. Sooner or later a case would have emerged whose facts fit the ideology perfectly.
But it does make a difference. Only a cause which is not confident of its own righteousness needs to lie to prove its point. As the leading gay journalist in the US, Andrew Sullivan, comments about The Book of Matt, “No one should be afraid of the truth. Least of all gay people... Shouldn’t we understand better why and how?"
And worst of all, massaging and rearranging the facts makes it likely that you will omit facts that don’t fit into the myth. Perhaps that’s why “The Laramie Project” is opening in Ford Theater in Washington DC this month, while the 2002 murder of Mary Stachowicz, a housewife who was beaten, stabbed, strangled and killed by a gay co-worker because she questioned his lifestyle has been forgotten. She doesn’t fit into the myth of gay oppression.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.