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What Happened in Laramie

Everything you know about Matthew Shepard is wrong

Nov 18, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 10 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Stephen Jimenez sounds remarkably chipper on the phone when he calls in from Portland, his thirteenth city on a seemingly endless book tour. He’s plugging The Book of Matt, and the reason he’s chipper is that he hasn’t been burned in effigy, yet, or heckled mercilessly, yet, or denounced, at least by anybody that really matters, as a traitor to the cause. Yet. 

Shepard

Matthew Shepard, left, and Aaron McKinney

The “cause” in this case would be gay rights, in all of its astounding exfoliations. Jimenez’s book threatens to uproot a foundational myth of the movement: that the murder of a University of Wyoming student named Matthew Shepard, in 1998, was a “hate crime.” 

The approved account, received for 15 years now as both a horror and an inspiration, tells us that Shepard was approached in a bar one night by two strangers, who drove him to the outskirts of Laramie and then beat him nearly to death with the butt of a .357 Magnum pistol, for the simple reason that he was homosexual. One of the blows fell so hard it pushed Shepard’s brain into his brain stem, cracking it. He was found the next morning tied to a rail fence crucifixion-style, after 18 hours in near-freezing temperatures, comatose. 

Even before his death five days later, Shepard had been made a symbol, thanks to quick work by mainchancers from national gay rights organizations and by compliant reporters from back East, who found in the story a ready-made example of the intolerance, cruelty, violence, and raging homophobia of America’s flyover country, Western States Division.

Well, no, says Stephen Jimenez. Beginning as a self-described amateur journalist (the best kind), he studied Shepard’s murder off and on for 13 years, conducted hundreds of interviews with sources on and off the record, and pored over a public record many thousands of pages long. His comprehensive account corrects the approved version in small matters and large. Shepard was not tied to the rail fence as if crucified, for example, and it’s still not clear, even after Jimenez’s exhaustive reporting, how this piece of misinformation became common knowledge—beyond the obvious explanation that reporters thought the detail was, as the saying goes, too good to check. 

More surprisingly, Jimenez concludes that Shepard’s death had nothing to do with homophobia. It was instead the horrific result of a drug deal gone wrong. Indeed, in The Book of Matt, Jimenez offers lots of circumstantial evidence that Shepard and one of his murderers, a violent and drug-addled bit of tumbleweed called Aaron McKinney, were rival dealers in crystal meth. Several named witnesses told Jimenez that the two even had a sexual relationship. 

“I knew in writing the book that it would stir up a lot of questions, a lot of conversation,” Jimenez said on the phone, “and it has!”

As an author hoping to sell his book to the widest possible public, Jimenez says he worried that in debunking an important piece of left-wing mythology the book might become a conservative cause célèbre—thereby alienating, Coulter-style, the far larger audience of nonconservative book buyers. Jimenez himself is clearly a man of the left, and gay too, and briefly it looked as though his fear might be well placed. Breitbart.com, World Net Daily, PJ Media, and Gateway Pundit all hailed the book weeks before its publication date. “NO H8?” read the Breitbart headline, a little too cleverly, “bombshell book: matthew shepard tortured, murdered by gay lover.” 

For the most part the conservative press was undeterred by the fact that The Book of Matt, as impressive as it is for the author’s tirelessness and courage, is something of a mess. When it comes to gay true-crime investigator-writers, Jimenez is no Truman Capote. He has chosen to tell the story of Shepard’s life and death through a first-person account of his own investigations. It is thus not so much a book that tells a story as a book that tells a story about telling a story, a bit like the famous totalitarian mural titled “The Struggle of the Little People to Finish the Mural.” This technique plays hell with the chronology, and it’s often difficult for the reader to tell which character said what when. The reader’s unease is compounded knowing that many of Jimenez’s sources are the kind of witnesses usually considered unreliable: meth heads, hustlers, hookers, drunks, various species of trailer trash.

In his defense Jimenez says that if his witnesses seem unreliable, it is only because this is the sort of people Shepard and his murderers associated with. They knew the participants firsthand—and these are the same witnesses that authorities relied on to get a conviction. For each of his more striking claims Jimenez has been careful to gather multiple sources, usually named. No alert reader can come away from the book still believing the approved story of a shy young man robbed of his life because of his assailants’ “fear of the other.” The myth that thrilled the progressive heart for 15 years cannot survive Jimenez’s accumulation of evidence. 

So the note of triumphalism among conservative reviewers, while tasteless, is understandable. Conservatives, after all, often think rather highly of their country, particularly that part of it squeezed between the Boston-Washington megalopolis and the San Diego–Seattle corridor. We are not so susceptible to the sour view that held Shepard’s murder to be exemplary of American life, and we are annoyed at the ease with which others can assume it was. 

It’s hard to overstate how deeply embedded the Shepard murder is in the progressive understanding of contemporary America. No fewer than four TV movies have been made about the case, each more mawkish than the last. Tourists, both worshipful and ghoulish, still arrive in Laramie, hoping to see the fence. (It was removed long ago.) There is a thick catalogue of Shepard books—dramatizations, poetry collections, art anthologies, self-help manuals, memoirs, sociological studies, and political manifestoes. The Matthew Shepard Foundation, begun by Shepard’s mother and still employing her and her surviving son, sells T-shirts, hoodies, wristbands, books, acrylic tumblers, even sunglasses with a Shepard theme. (“Erase Hate This Holiday Season,” says one come-on.) Mrs. Shepard herself gives more than 50 speeches a year, turning a grief that has no dimension into an endless tour promoting same-sex marriage, anti-bullying legislation, and other causes whose relation to the murder, even in its approved version, is hard to figure. Each year the foundation auctions off specially designed and dressed teddy bears, signed by celebrities ranging from Barry Manilow to Lady Gaga. 

The most successful retailer of the Shepard myth is a long-running play called The Laramie Project. It was assembled from transcripts of interviews with Laramie’s townsfolk in the aftermath of the murder. It has been staged more than 2,000 times since it debuted in 2000. For several years it ranked among the top 10 plays got up by U.S. high school drama departments—a kind of Our Town for the new America of the 21st century. Like Our Town it requires no scenery beyond a table and a few chairs and no costumes beyond street clothes. What it does require is a school principal willing to tolerate its many F-bombs, its distasteful subject matter, and its unblinking depiction of middle-class American life as essentially psychotic. But of course we have plenty of those.

It is no accident, as an earlier generation of progressives used to say, that the publication of Jimenez’s book in October coincided with a monthlong staging of The Laramie Project at Ford’s Theatre in the nation’s capital—both play and book were timed to exploit the fifteenth anniversary of the murder. Ford’s, of course, is preserved by the National Park Service as the scene of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Each week the theater bused in local middle and high school students to watch while the seemingly “healthy” town of Laramie disintegrated on the stage. Study guides were distributed for classroom discussion of homophobia, “Fear of the Other,” the culture of violence .  .  . all the “issues” that Shepard’s murder is said to have raised. 

The play is very long. It was written by a veteran of off-off-Broadway called Moisés Kaufman, who explained his playwriting method this way, the old fox: “We used a technique I developed called moment work. It is a method to create and analyze theater from a structuralist (or tectonic) perspective. For that reason, there are no scenes in this play, only moments.” 

“Moment work” relieves the playwright of enormous burdens—for example, the need to write a play with a plot. As a theatrical experience, The Laramie Project begins and then it goes along for awhile; moment follows moment and then, after two intermissions, it ends. Perhaps as compensation for this dramaturgical weakness, the management of Ford’s surrounded the play’s monthlong run with festivities. There were panel discussions and a candle-light vigil, a speech by Mrs. Shepard and readings of a sequel to The Laramie Project, celebrations in the local press and a special museum exhibit about the murder in Ford’s Center for Education and Leadership, called “Not Alone: The Power of Response.”

I can hear you, as you learn of this combination of Lincoln and gay rights, asking the question: Excuse me? Why would Ford’s Theatre put on a show whose overriding purpose is political agitation? Again, no coincidence: The theater’s current management, swimming in donations from American corporations, has lately turned it into a venue for just this sort of political agitation under a program called The Lincoln Legacy Project. The purpose is to remind theatergoers of the dismal country they live in: Wallowing in the sty of hate, it is yet capable of redemption—transcendence, even!—so long as it acknowledges its own cancerous nature.

“When we began The Legacy Project,” the theater’s director, Paul Tetreault, wrote in a program note, “I knew we must include The Laramie Project as part of our exploration of intolerance and injustice in America.” In fact, intolerance and injustice are the only aspects of America Ford’s does bother to explore, leaving aside the annual Yuletide showing of A Christmas Carol

Shepard’s murder, Tetreault went on, “was a watershed moment, opening America’s eyes to the brutality and intolerance suffered by ‘the other.’ ” Even after 15 years, he said, “his story still reverberates.”

Jimenez’s book raises an uncomfortable question: Can activists like Tetreault still insist the story continues to reverberate now that we know it’s not true? And the answer is: You bet! The approved version can reverberate for as long as the activists want to ignore the factual version. No one at Ford’s or The Laramie Project would agree to comment on Jimenez’s revelations. And we can assume The Book of Matt won’t much matter to them—“too good to check” is a temptation for agitators too, even when they’re disguised as arts administrators and dramatists.  

But their stubborn silence, this studied ignorance, is beginning to seem anachronistic, and here may be the most interesting lesson that The Book of Matt has to teach us. In quarters where you’d expect angry resistance, even hostility, the reaction has been mild and matter-of-fact. 

“I think you could say I was very pleasantly surprised by the thoughtful reaction of liberals,” Jimenez told me, “and many, many gay people have had nice things to say.”

The leftwing watchdog Media Matters called Jimenez’s account of the murder “Trutherism,” associating it with the crackpot insistence that Barack Obama was born in Kenya (or was it Malaysia?), and at first there were the expected calls for boycotts. A petition circulated round the web demanding bookstore owners cancel Jimenez’s promotional appearances. 

But these failed spectacularly. Instead the American  Booksellers Association came to Jimenez’s defense, and several gay bookstores invited him to appear as a repudiation of the boycotters. 

“This is definitely a book that has a lot to say,” said Ken White, the manager of Books, Inc., in San Francisco’s Castro District, and it “is especially relevant to where we are.”

Meanwhile, Kirkus Reviews, the left-leaning tip sheet of the publishing industry, gave the book a rave notice. The gay website The Dish ran a long and respectful video interview with Jimenez. The Advocate, the country’s most widely read gay magazine, ran an article summarizing Jimenez’s reporting and asking, “What if nearly everything you thought you knew about Matthew Shepard’s murder was wrong?”

Jimenez says he was surprised at how little outrage his appearances caused. “I’ve had a lot more people, gay people, coming up to me and saying, ‘Thank you for telling the truth,’ ” he said. “ ‘We needed to hear the truth.’ ”

This reaction to the dismantling of a foundational symbol by the movement that built it is not merely surprising. The Book of Matt and the serene, even approving, reception it’s received suggest that the movement is outgrowing its own mythology. It is a sign of political maturity and cultural confidence—an acknowledgment by gay activists that, whatever really happened to Matthew Shepard that horrible night 15 years ago, they have carried the day.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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