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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
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; email@example.com; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; email@example.com; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: email@example.com; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.