Since Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered a decade ago, his story has achieved the status of parable, illustrating how ugly anti-gay bigotry really is. Every year, thousands of high school students across the country perform Moises Kaufman's play, The Laramie Project, which recounts the aftermath of Shepard's murder through the eyes of the local residents. Shepard's story has been the subject of three screen productions, a documentary, and countless investigative reports. That he was discovered tied to a pole on a dirt road only encouraged Christian analogy, one not-so-subtly invoked by the 2007 Phil Hall theatrical production, Matthew Passion.
As Shepard's father said at the trial of the two men eventually convicted of killing Shepard, "My son has become a symbol."
This familiar story -- Matthew as a pure, meek victim of anti-gay bigotry -- remains an orthodoxy unquestioned by all but the most ardent gay-rights opponents. In fact, Shepard was a deeply troubled young man. He had a severe drug and alcohol problem, suffered from bouts of depression, and failed out of school numerous times. He spent his money on partying, leaving him unable to pay bills. He contracted HIV, most likely through unsafe sex. These darker details are conspicuously absent from the prevailing narrative about Shepard's life.
There's no question that Shepard's murder was the result of bigotry. But by ignoring Shepard's flaws, supporters of gay rights make a critical mistake. The allegorical Matthew of vigils and plays is a not a person with conflicting desires and motivations. He's a one-dimensional caricature. If Shepard's story is intended as a lesson on the tragic consequences of gay bigotry, the ardent refusal to cast him as anything but an unblemished victim provides another: In order to win rights, gay people not only have to be just like you, they have to be better than you.
In her new book, The Meaning of Matthew, Judy Shepard acknowledges her son's shortcomings. But despite her frank acknowledgement of his problems, she ultimately falls back on eulogistic platitudes: He made everyone "feel that they were the only ones in the world at that moment." He liked to "ruffle a few feathers" and "had a promising future." Her son "put an everyday face on the gay rights movement."
It's understandable that a grieving mother remembers her son in the best light. But Matthew Shepard's status as a gay everyman was determined -- first by the media, then by gay-rights groups -- with little knowledge of who he was. He looked like an attractive, angelic, white college student from the heart of conservative America. He was found tied to a pole and beaten, hovering near death. The story could have written itself -- and it did: Numerous media outlets erroneously reported that Matthew had been "crucified" when in reality he was found on the ground.
Over 1,400 members of the LGBT community are victims of a hate crime every year, which includes violent attacks as well as harassment. Why, then, is Shepard the "face" of gay rights? The implication is that all the other candidates weren't quite right: not urban New Yorkers dying of AIDS in the 1980s, not inner-city black adolescents whose parents kicked them out of the house, not leather daddies marching on Washington. The pictures of other gays, lesbians, and transgender people did not prove sufficiently salable to make it onto rally placards.
At worst, anointing Shepard the "everyday" face of gay rights is a concession to other types of bigotry -- against trans men and women, racial and ethnic minorities, gay men with AIDS. At the very least, it demonstrates a willingness to appeal to mainstream tastes in order to earn political capital. It's the type of pragmatic bargain that organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and Equality California make all the time: You give us rights, and we'll hide the drag queens.
The "perfect icon" problem is not exclusive to the gay-rights movement. We revere Martin Luther King Jr. -- a peaceful reformer who couched his calls for civil rights in terms of brotherhood and Christian values -- instead of Malcolm X, a secessionist and Muslim who blamed whites for slavery and black oppression. There is also a reason the long-haired and beautiful Gloria Steinem is a better known feminist than Judith Butler, the androgynous queer theorist. All these figures have similar messages, but we choose to elevate those who are less threatening. Cast as a small, good-natured kid who loved everybody, Shepard is the epitome of nonthreatening.
This deification is part of what happens when a personal narrative turns political.
Judy Shepard calls comparisons of her son to Christ "inappropriate," but that framing has helped make him the patron saint of hate-crime legislation. The fight for this legislation is at least part of the "meaning" of Matthew. The Matthew Shepard Act is currently under consideration in the House after being stymied under George W. Bush, who threatened to veto it. If it passes, gay-rights groups can declare a victory. But what will have been vanquished? Even his mother acknowledges that "a dyed-in-the-wool and determined bigot isn't about to log onto the Internet to check state or federal statutes before bashing someone's head in."
What hate-crime laws do provide are stricter sentencing guidelines, feeding a criminal-justice system that has imprisoned more than 1 percent of the U.S. population and unfairly targets minorities. The courts imprison blacks at six times the rate of whites, and Hispanics, at more than double the rate of whites; the rate of black incarceration under President George W. Bush was higher than it was in South Africa during apartheid. If the face of anti-gay violence were a racial or ethnic minority, would we still be pushing for hate-crimes legislation that props up the criminal-justice system?
As Jos Truitt at Feministing.com points out, activists' energy would be better spent on empowering victims and combating the homophobia that motivates hate crimes. Groups like the Human Rights Campaign, which are spearheading the effort to get the Matthew Shepard Act passed, should focus instead on education programs and passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Harsher murder sentences can't bring back the dead, but nondiscrimination laws and education programs can help LGBT Americans who are still living. It's hard to see how Shepard's memory is "honored" by a legalistic redefinition of federal sentencing guidelines or how this accomplishes anything concrete for gay rights.
Judy Shepard is entitled to remember her son however she likes. The rest of us have no such excuse. In an objective sense, the "meaning" of Matthew is not to be found in the passage of legislation, candlelight vigils, or passion plays. The real tragedy of Matthew Shepard's death is that it was senseless: He did not die for hate-crimes legislation or to become a martyr. The public can craft a narrative in which trauma finds redemption in politics, but ultimately the meaning we find in Shepard's death says more about society and the gay-rights movement than it does about Judy Shepard's son.