Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Tarnishing the Memory of Matthew Shepard


Courtesy of NPR
It’s been 15 years since the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay 21 year-old college student.  For those who do not recall this seminal event in the LGBT rights movement, Shepard was in the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, Wyoming on the night of October 6-7 when he met two young men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Apparently, Shepard told these men he was gay, and needing a ride, they offered to drive him home. 
McKinney and Henderson left the bar with Shepard, robbed, pistol whipped and tortured him at a field on the edge of town, and left him to die, tied up to a fence.  He was so badly battered and bloodied that the person who discovered Shepard 18 hours later, Aaron Kreifels, a cyclist, at first thought he was a Halloween scarecrow.   He died on October 12 , never regaining consciousness.
The belief was that this murder took place because of Shepard’s being gay.  McKinney at one point even used a “gay panic” defense during the subsequent trial asserting that he had been so shocked by Shepard’s alleged sexual advances, he was somehow not culpable.  Both convicted killers are serving life sentences.

We do not have to look too hard to find a silver lining through the dark clouds of hatred, bloodshed and death: this heinous crime led to the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act that was signed into law in 2009 by President Obama.  In addition, many locales around the U.S. also expanded hate crime statutes to include sexual orientation.

The needed legislation was accomplished mainly through the tireless work of Shepard’s parents, Judy and Dennis, as well as by LGBT organizations and activists.  The rest of society saw the image of this fragile-looking young man and imagining his being beaten senseless by two jerks who seethed with hatred.  This horror felt by ordinary citizens enabled the law that President Obama strongly favored to be passed in Congress.  Fortunately, it was accomplished before the Tea Party crackpots were voted in the following year.
This 15th anniversary of the murder was supposed to be a poignant remembrance of the tragedy, a reflection on the hatred and violence that LGBT people have faced and continues to face at the hands of virulent and ignorant haters.  And yet, we note that not all of society has fully embraced tolerance of gays or the facts of history for that matter.  In the latter case, it is simply denial, and it’s used for political purposes.

Earlier in the month, while presenting The Laramie Project—a widely produced play about Matthew Shepard—at the University of Mississippi (better known as “Ole Miss” in the sports vernacular), some 20 athletes who were required to take a theater course, heckled the actors, calling them “fags” or “faggots” and insulting their body types.  This was an act of disrespect that was characterized by a faculty member as “borderline hate speech.”  The heckling was ironically disheartening given what The Laramie Project is all about.
“I was disappointed to see that a number of Ole Miss football players and others in the audience decided to interrupt a performance of the play using anti-gay slurs,” Judy Shepard told Queerty. “Using hate-filled words to interrupt a play about anti-gay hate is a sad irony that only reminds me of the work we at the Matthew Shepard Foundation and each of us as individuals must undertake to help stop hate.”

Though a single apology representing the students did not come off as sincere, driving one of the actors to tears, the school has taken steps to rectify the situation. The Chancellor and Athletics Director issued a joint statement pledging that the individuals involved will be “held accountable.” They concluded by saying: “On behalf of our 22,000 students, our faculty, and our staff, we apologize.” 
Officials see this incident as a learning experience.  “We will be engaging our student-athletes with leaders on the subject of individuality and tolerance, so we can further enforce life lessons and develop them to their fullest potential,” they said in a statement. 

Ole Miss has just celebrated LGBTQ month and held a Pride celebration as well.  The reaction to the incident and the measures taken should not to be shrugged off given the university’s less than stellar history with civil rights. 

Another stain on Matthew Shepard’s memory was the release last month of The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard by Stephen Jimenez.  He was the producer of the ABC News program 20/20 segment that aired in 2004 that claimed that Shepard’s murder was not because of his sexual orientation but rather a drug-related robbery that went violent.
The book revived and amplified those claims, which are contrary to the generally accepted version of events. Additionally, Jimenez claimed that Shepard and at least one of his killers (McKinney) had been occasional sexual partners.  Of course, many people have discounted Jimenez’s version citing McKinney’s earlier “gay panic” defense.

Seizing an opportunity to rail against gays, radio host and Fox News contributor Sandy Rios on October 12 spoke at the Values Voter Summit in Washington spouting anti-gay rhetoric.   She regurgitated the right-wing myth contained in Jimenez’s book by labeling Shepard’s murder “a total fraud” and that the murder was being used by liberals to foster acceptance of gay people by society.
There have been some reports that Matthew Shepard had been involved with drugs and that he may have known McKinney.  However, none of that was brought up at the trial.  I will continue to go with the police investigators and prosecutors that Shepard’s brutal murder was an act of hate based on his sexuality and I won’t allow revisionists or right wing extremists besmirch his memory.

To read more about discrediting  Jimenez’s version of history, visit here.

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