Print the Legend

I mentioned the Kitty Genovese ‘debunking the myth‘ stories to a coworker, and he came back with a story he had heard debunking the almost universally-broadcast story that Matthew Shepard was savagely – and ultimately fatally – beaten for being gay. That story caused a furor, led to several books, songs, plays and films in tribute, such The Laramie Project, and certainly contributed to passage of the Shepard/Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

My coworker’s views are somewhat to the right of mine, and “truther” theories float around any big story, so I was dubious, but I did some research. In 2004 ABC’s 20/20 broadcast New Details Emerge in Matthew Shepard Murder, which claimed that Shepard was murdered during a violent, meth-fueled robbery and may have been sexually involved with his killer:

The story garnered national attention when the attack was characterized as a hate crime. But Shepard’s killers, in their first interview since their convictions, tell “20/20’s” Elizabeth Vargas that money and drugs motivated their actions that night, not hatred of gays. …

“Everybody knew Matt Shepard was a partier just like Aaron, just like the rest of us,” said [Ryan] Bopp.

In fact, Bopp said he had seen Shepard and McKinney together at parties. “Aaron was selling [drugs] and him and Matt would go off to the side and they’d come back. And Matt would be doing some meth then,” he said.

That show received withering condemnation, but right wing legislators used it to assert that the Hate Crimes legislation was based on a hoax. In reaction to a 2009 Rachel Maddow broadcast about that debate, über-blogger Andrew Sullivan cited those facts in The Case Of Matthew Shepard:

I don’t doubt that homophobia fueled the disgusting murder. But I am unconvinced it was the sole motive. … My own view, for what it’s worth, is that this was multi-determined. I do not doubt that one of the motives for the brutality of the killing, perhaps the primary one, was homophobia. Equally, I don’t doubt that it was much, much murkier than the p.c. mythology would have you believe. …

Stephen Jimenez, who didn’t get the story past his editors at the NY Times, but did contribute to the 20/20 piece, continued to investigate the case. Jimenez, himself gay, eventually wrote The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard, which was published in October 2013. The Advocate, an American LGBT-interest magazine, discussed the alternate story with Have We Got Matthew Shepard All Wrong?:

By several accounts, McKinney had been on a meth bender for five days prior to the murder, and spent much of October 6 trying to find more drugs. By the evening he was so wound up that he attacked three other men in addition to Shepard. Even Cal Rerucha, the prosecutor who had pushed for the death sentence for McKinney and Henderson, would later concede on ABC’s 20/20 that “it was a murder that was driven by drugs.” …

Not everyone is interested in hearing these alternative theories. When 20/20 engaged Jimenez to work on a segment revisiting the case in 2004, GLAAD bridled at what the organization saw as an attempt to undermine the notion that anti-gay bias was a factor; Moises Kaufman, the director and co-writer of The Laramie Project, denounced it as “terrible journalism,” though the segment went on to win an award from the Writers Guild of America for best news analysis of the year.

There has been criticism of the book’s claims, too, such as this Media Matters piece, Former NYT Editor Rebuts Stephen Jimenez’s Claim About Matthew Shepard Story:

Shepard truthers in the right-wing media have cited Jimenez’s new book,… to assail hate crime legislation and the larger push for LGBT rights. But Jimenez’s argument is tainted by its reliance on wild extrapolation, questionable and often inconsistent sources, theories that critics of his work are engaged in a “cover-up” of politically sensitive truths, and the dismissal of any evidence that runs contrary to his central thesis. …

When Media Matters sought Jimenez’s reaction … [he] said only that the “article killed by the Times Magazine became the basis” for a report on ABC’s 20/20 that he coproduced later that year, and pointed to “two major journalism awards” that report had won.

But such regard for that piece was by no means universal. The 20/20 report — criticized by journalists, media scholars, LGBT advocacy group GLAAD, and Shepard’s family — sparked a furor, especially in light of an email indicating that Jimenez had already made up his mind about the case before he and his ABC colleagues began reporting the story.

Most recently the NBA’s first openly gay player, Jason Collins, gave an autographed #98 jersey to Shepard’s family, heartening liberals, but giving conservative sites a chance to attack the story again. It is hard to sit here with only a web browser and decide who is right and wrong about the facts, but it isn’t hard to know that whether or not Shepard himself was only killed for being gay, legislation against hate crimes that bears his name was certainly due.

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