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The Problem With Martyrs
T he moment ABC’s “20/20” announced it would air an hour-long show on the “real facts” behind the 1998 Matthew Shepard murder, controversies began to swirl. Without having seen the program, groups such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), a media watchdog organization; Lambda Legal Defense, a nonprofit legal-advocacy organization; and the Matthew Shepard Foundation (run by his parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard), sensed that the “20/20” story would attempt to “de-gay” the murder of the 21-year-old Wyoming college student, which everyone —up until now—had claimed was a homophobic hate crime. These groups, and others, called for everything from urging ABC to cancel the show to calling their journalistic ethics into question. Joan Garry of GLAAD noted, “This was indeed a complex murder; no one is suggesting otherwise. But for ‘20/20’ to lay out a case based on speculation, innuendo, the avoidance of critical facts, sources lacking in basic credibility, and reliance on conflicting pieces of information is reckless journalism.”
“20/20” exposé (which aired Friday, November 26,
during Thanksgiving weekend) made the case that Shepard’s murder
was not a hate crime, but a robbery gone horribly wrong. While the
show contained some interesting reporting, it failed to provide
the complete context of what happened. It left us with more questions,
not just about what happened that night, but about how we, as a
culture, create victims and martyrs to serve our causes and purposes.
Matthew Shepard has become an international symbol of how hatred of gay people can erupt in homicidal behavior. Mercilessly pistol-whipped and then tied to a fence in freezing temperatures on a deserted road, Shepard died two days later. His murder was the basis for two television films and an award-winning documentary play, The Laramie Project , as well as the incentive for national organizing to stop violence against gay people. Through the Matthew Shepard Foundation, Judy Shepard has become a spokesperson for anti-violence campaigns and a series of pro-gay projects. There is no doubt the political and cultural ramifications of Shepard’s murder are still being felt today. The power of his story rests on the notion that he was a completely “innocent” victim—young, slight, unworldly, naive. Shepard was the perfect victim as well as the perfect martyr.
So what are we to make of the “20/20” revelations (described as “shocking”) that: (1) Shepard was HIV-positive and apparently very upset and depressed about it; (2) he was a frequent user of crystal meth and part of a Laramie bar-and- nightlife community that was involved in meth use; (3) he knew his killer, Aaron McKinney, through this drug connection and the two had been seen socializing; (4) McKinney was an active bisexual with a history of engaging in sex with men (something he denied on “20/20”); (5) McKinney and Russell Henderson did not kill Matthew Shepard because he was gay, but rather their attempt to rob him went terribly wrong when McKinney flew into a meth-fueled rage and beat Shepard to death.
Though the producers of “20/20” go out of their way to condemn the murder and to praise the good work that’s been done in Shepard’s name, there is something discomforting lurking behind the show’s we-are-just-doing-this-to- clarify-what-happened tone.
There are several problems. The first was that—as GLAAD noted —this is shabby investigative journalism, even by TV standards. The assertion that Aaron McKinney supposedly slept with many men comes from one source, not the standard two sources needed. That source was a man who had a sexual contact with McKinney at an all night drug and drinking party. Sex with one man doesn’t necessarily make McKinney bisexual or gay, it might just make him drunk and on meth and willing to do something he never did before or after.
Second, the claim that Matthew Shepard was HIV-positive (a claim that has been made since the murder itself) has no tenable connection to the case. This is simply sensationalism, the net effect of which is to deflate the public image of Shepard as the “perfect victim.” Also, the claim that Shepard was a crystal meth user and was known to McKinney beforehand reinforces the idea that there were drugs involved in the crime, but this information was in many of the original stories.
This leads us to a third problem. “20/20” presents viewers with a false choice: Shepard was murdered either because he was gay or because he was a robbery victim. Common sense tells us McKinney and Henderson could have targeted him because they thought he had money and because they thought that a small and fragile-looking gay person was a more perfect mark. These two reasons can co-exist. There is no need to choose one or the other. Most crimes have multiple causes and this one probably was no exception. By positing a dynamic in which we are expected to choose between “hate crime” and “robbery,” “20/20” reinforces the sensationalist slant of the show. And to what purpose? Are they suggesting that gay-bias hate crimes don’t exist? They never say that, of course, but that is one conclusion audiences might make. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), which called the “20/20” segment “irresponsible,” “biased,” “shameful,” and “destructive,” noted that their own data showed that anti-gay and transgender violence increased 26 percent nationally at the end of 2003, and has continued to rise throughout 2004. One has to wonder if “20/20” will spend a full hour looking at the complexity and range of homophobic hate crimes, rather than proving one specific crime was misunderstood and misrepresented by the media.
Another problem relates to the lure and power of Matthew Shepard as the perfect victim—for the media as well as for the gay and lesbian community. While “20/20” assures us this was a terrible crime, it ends up implying that Shepard was a less-than-completely-innocent victim who might have been, in some way, complicit in his own death. Let’s face it: the general population is going to have less sympathy for a wealthy, HIV-positive, meth-snorting college kid than for the angelic, fragile icon that has been presented to us.
The canonization of Matthew Shepard is not unusual. It happens all the time when political and social movements need a saint or a martyr. These figures function symbolically, almost as myths or archetypes. They are often victims—think of the women who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the children at Mi Lai, even Anne Frank—and the process by which they come to represent the power and justness of a cause is both simple and complex. In a dichotomized world view, in which the justness of a cause is predicated on the total innocence of those who personify it, the promotion of the “perfect victim” makes sense.
Propaganda, of any sort, has always demanded that representation be as simple and as powerful as possible. On some level this works. How better to show the logical consequences of capitalism than to focus on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire? How better to illustrate the genocidal horrors of the U.S. war against Vietnam than to point to the Mi Lai massacre? How better to show both the singularity and the enormity of the Holocaust than to glorify the D iary of Anne Frank?
But this isn’t how the real world works. People’s lives are messy and complicated. The victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and Mi Lai are essentially faceless; historians have chosen not to detail the specificity of their lives. In some sense, they function better as symbols because they remain faceless, almost anonymous. This is not the case with Anne Frank. From the first publication of her diary, Frank’s image was manipulated and shaped. Her father, Otto, censored anything in the Diary that would reflect badly on Anne or her family. Her natural interest in sex was removed. Her negative comments about her mother were cut out. Her perceptive explications about national and world politics were reduced to the sentimental banality of the phrase, “…but despite every- thing I still believe in the goodness of people.”
In fact, the power of Frank’s Diary has been chipped away by those who would prefer to promote the image of the preternaturally innocent teenager rather than the more complex person. As Cynthia Ozick wrote in Who Owns Anne Frank? , “The story of Anne Frank in the fifty years since The Diary of a Young Girl was first published has been bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, traduced, reduced; it has been infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized; falsified, kitschified, and, in fact, blatantly and arrogantly denied.”
While the parallels between Anne Frank and Matthew Shepard are not exact, there are interesting intersections. The power of the Matthew Shepard story rests on his being the innocent victim. His gayness had to be presented in such a way that it was free of all possible homophobic interpretations. He could not be seen in the news reports of his death as being anything but perfect: he was friendly, he was loved by everyone, he had a vision of world peace, he was good looking, he never made enemies, he was the traditional boy next door in all ways—except he was gay. He put a “human face” on hate crimes.
The flip side of this meant that Matthew Shepard couldn’t have problems, couldn’t be a stereotypical flaming queen, couldn’t be promiscuous, and couldn’t even be sexual. In a deeply homophobic culture, the overt brutality of Shepard’s murder could be understood as brutal only in direct contrast to his innocence. This, obviously, is not a problem with Matthew Shepard, but with our culture.
When “20/20” reports that Shepard was a crystal meth user, that he liked to party with the drug crowd, and that he was HIV-positive (during the AIDS epidemic when he would have understood the consequences of unsafe sex), the show—whether they meant to or not—diminished the importance of gay bias crimes. The “20/20” contention that the murder of Shepard was not a hate crime only works because they also repeatedly showed that he was not an “innocent victim.”
Of course he wasn’t. Who is? Even today, after nearly 40 years of second-wave feminism, rape victims are judged by their sexual history, even how they were dressed. In a world that continues to see gay men as sexual predators, disease carriers, criminals, and socially dangerous, its’s no wonder that to get Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder to be taken seriously the truth of his life had to be compromised and misrepresented.
The problem is that gay activists and the mainstream media both agree—for similar reasons—that this compromise is necessary and useful. The original coverage of the Shepard murder would not have been the same (or as extensive) if his HIV status or his alleged drug use was a factor. One of the ironies of the “20/20” piece is that because of the raised public consciousness of gay bias crimes, it is now permissible for his murderers to go on national television and say they were totally fucked up crystal-meth addicts rather than homophobic. Progress, sort of.
The problem was not one invented by “20/20.” It is the result of a world so twisted by hatred of gay people that the only way Shepard’s brutal murder can be taken seriously is to see him as the ultimate innocent victim. Matthew Shepard was human and no one who is human can be completely, perfectly innocent. If the need to define hate crimes and to argue against homophobic violence means we have to extract them from the complicated fabric of everyday life, then we are all in trouble—more trouble than “20/20” can ever cause with this exposé.
Michael Bronski is an activist and writer. His most recent book is Pulp Friction .
Z Magazine Archive
AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; https://nato5support.wordpress.com.
MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
Contact: WisCon, ? SF3, PO Box 1624, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://www.wiscon.info/.
ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
Contact: SWCHRS, 3200 Marshall Avenue, Suite 290, Norman, OK 73072; 405-325-3694; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ncore.ou.edu.
MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
RADIO - The 38th Annual Community Radio Conference is schedule for May 29-June 1, in San Francisco, CA, with discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20004; 202-756-2268; email@example.com; http://www.nfcb.org/.
BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduated Center, ? Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; firstname.lastname@example.org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.socialismconference.org.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.peacestockvfp.org.
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.childrensdefense.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
Contact: email@example.com; http://east.usworker.coop/.
WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
Contact: 121 West 27th Street, #301, New York, NY 10001; 212-627-0444; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.madre.org.
SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
Contact: http://www.falconridgefolk.com/; email@example.com.
WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
Contact: 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-228-0450; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.warresisters.org.
POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
Contact: Center for Popular Economics, PO Box 785 Amherst, MA 01004; 413-545-0743; email@example.com; www.populareconomics.org.
VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
Contact: email@example.com; http://occupynationalgathering.net/.
COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.