October 12 marks the tenth anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death in Laramie, Wyoming. The murder occurred five days earlier, when two University of Wyoming acquaintances tied Shepard to a fencepost, tortured him, and then clubbed him with the handle of a pistol in a failed attempt to kill him, leaving him tied up in the freezing night, for 18 hours (1).
The news of this crime affected me deeply at the time. I was furious—with everyone—perhaps to a large extent with the media, which attempted to find balance through understanding the accused perpetrators’ points of view, more often than not, circling back to Shepard himself as perhaps in some way culpable in his death.
He reportedly had made sexual overtures to one of the young men who killed him (2).
He reportedly had flashed his money around on the night of the attack, attracting attention. Police investigators insisted that robbery, not hate, had been the motive (3).
Even attempts to shield the victim from further defamation were ham-fisted reminders of the stereotypes more easily remembered by most Americans than the disclaimers were. Even though reports often stipulated that Shepard had “not flaunted” his sexuality and was “not flamboyant,” these were terms mainstream America was likely to associate with any homosexual, so the “not” could be easily overlooked or forgotten.
The unspoken assumptions behind all this were that flaunting and flamboyance could be understandable (but, in this particular case, irrelevant) provocations to violence, and a pickup line or a thick wallet is practically begging for a bashing.
The suspects, on the other hand, were regular boys, with girlfriends, who fabricated alibis for them. Their hearts were not filled with hate, we heard; instead, Shepard had “offended,” “humiliat[ed]” (4) and “embarrassed” them (3).
They further attempted to create sympathy for themselves in the time-honored tradition of portraying how icky homosexuality is, claiming that the victim had put his hand on the knee of one of the assailants—or, in another version, had propositioned him and licked his ear (2).
It was suggested that the media made too big a deal of the crime, since had Shepard been heterosexual and been robbed and beaten to death, no national coverage would have followed (3).
Even though the two suspects had pretended to be gay to lure Shepard to his death and because Wyoming had no hate crimes laws, the argument went that Shepard’s homosexuality was irrelevant to the criminals’ motive and thus irrelevant to the trial. Gay conservative columnist and blogger Andrew Sullivan effectively reiterated the claim a year ago (5).
Now, ten years after Shepard’s death we have the third US state (Connecticut) legalizing gay marriage. Slow progress but progress, and a great benefit to lesbians and gay men who wish to marry whomever they love.
Five more states have hate crimes laws than in 1998. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia now have hate crimes laws. (Not, however, Wyoming.) But seven of the states with hate crimes laws do not include crimes motivated by the victims’ sexual orientation or gender identity in the wording of the law, including North Carolina, where I live.
It’s always difficult to judge progress, because it comes in ebbs and flows. Also, frequently, what one hand gives in one area, another takes away on another front. And the evaluation of the rate of progress often presumes knowledge of how quickly progress should be occurring, an impossible calculation.
Civil rights for gays and lesbians have advanced dramatically in the almost 40 years since the Stonewall Inn riots. Perhaps the most significant advance was five years ago, and five years after Shepard’s murder, when a mostly conservative US Supreme Court finally, in Lawrence v Texas, struck down all the states’ remaining sodomy laws.
My anger ten years ago has abated some. I still shudder to imagine the callousness and cruelty of the assault. My anger rises again when I re-read contemporary reportage of the crime—the efforts to sentimentalize and sensationalize every aspect of the event—parsing the pathos for every individual even remotely affected by the story.
Like racism and sexism, homophobia still thrives—perhaps (as we can see in some of the current anti-Obama rhetoric) in as virulent a strain as before. Its face is constantly changing—just as the stereotypes change.
The news media, the military, and the church may still show little progress in their attitudes towards gays—but, in entertainment, especially on TV, gays have found a home—so long as heterosexual characters need understanding and supportive friends and standup comics need punch lines.
(1) Reuters. “Gay Wyoming College Student Dies After Beating.” 12 Oct. 1998.
(2) Neiwert, Dave. “Matthew Shepard and Hate Crimes.” 2 Dec. 2004. Orcinus. 11 Oct. 2008 < http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2004/12/matthew-shepard-and-hate-crimes.html>.
(3) Reuters. “Suspect’s Father Denies Hate Crime.” 21 Oct. 1998.
(4) ABC World News Tonight. 11 Oct. 1998.
(5) Sullivan, Andrew. “A Culture War Moment.” 27 Sept. 2007. The Daily Dish. 11 Oct. 2008 < http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2007/09/a-culture-war-m.html>.