The Internet is buzzing with debate about The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard by Stephen Jimenez.
Jimenez, who spent more than a decade researching the book, concludes that Shepard’s 1998 murder was not a hate crime. He asserts that Shepard was involved in the methamphetamine trade and may have turned tricks for meth and money, including with his killer, Aaron McKinney. He alleges that McKinney murdered Shepard not out of anti-gay bias but over a bad drug deal.
Critics call it a hatchet job and tie it to the ongoing campaign by anti-gay, right-wing zealots to discredit Shepard and the federal hate crime statute named for him. Others note that Jimenez is himself gay and an award-winning reporter who conducted extensive interviews and dug up new facts about the crime.
I found the book fascinating. Jimenez presents his findings like an attorney building a case on layers of evidence. I wasn’t surprised by his assertions of Shepard’s drug dealing and sexual history. Shepard’s mother Judy wrote honestly about what a troubled kid he was in her own book. People touted as heroes or role models are often complicated, flawed individuals.
I don’t object to Jimenez’s reconsideration of the case. History is always being revised in light of new evidence and perspectives. We certainly have a much better understanding of the scope and horrors of the meth epidemic than we did at the time. I am troubled, however, by how many of the author’s allegations are based on unnamed sources whose words he “recreated” rather than recorded. Some testimony is from rather dodgy sources — including the killer himself, who has changed his story several times.
The claim that McKinney is bisexual seems irrelevant. Jimenez cites sources who say McKinney was a hustler, and he implies that McKinney’s experience of homo sex was coerced due to drug debts. McKinney’s own defense in the case was that he attacked Shepard for coming on to him.
Self-hating bi and gay men can be the worst kind of homophobes. His status doesn’t make him less likely to commit a hate crime, especially given his history of violence.
Some people have used the findings of this questionable book to denigrate Shepard and his legacy. One writer (in The Nation of all places!) condemned the “machinery” of the Matthew Shepard Foundation. They have accused Shepard supporters of misrepresenting his murder, profiting from his death and promoting a “political agenda.”
First of all, no conspiracy of activists made up what happened. All people of conscience were horrified by the crime as it was revealed through extensive reporting and evidence presented at the trial. There was no organized campaign to mislead anyone, just a spontaneous outpouring of outrage and concern.
The Matthew Shepard Foundation, founded by Matthew’s parents, is beyond reproach. No one who has talked with Judy and Dennis Shepard or seen the tireless work they have done to promote tolerance can deny their decency and their desire to turn their personal tragedy into something constructive.
Finally, federal hate crime legislation passed not only because of Matthew
Shepard but also because of James Byrd, Jr., and thousands of other victims of hate violence in this country. Shepard’s character and murder can be debated, but his legacy of justice for victims and tolerance for all is an honorable one.