We all know the story -- it's part of our national and cultural narrative.
On October 7, 1998, gay college student Matthew Shepard was lured out of a bar by two typical local redneck homophobes in Laramie, Wyoming and taken outside of town where he was lashed crucifixion-style to a buck-and-rail fence, robbed, beaten beyond recognition, and left to suffer without his shoes, his ring, and his wallet. The two redneck homophobes were arrested and convicted of kidnapping, aggravated robbery, and capital murder but not of a "hate crime," since the statute didn't exist in such a backwards state.
The death of Matthew Shepard inspired mountains of media coverage that, for the most part, hewed very closely to the narrative described above. There have been plays and movies performed about the incident, foundations created, and much righteous anger as well as nationwide efforts to enact hate crime laws. Most of all, though, the narrative serves the bigotry and preconceived notions of many who look down their noses at fly-over states.
The facts about the murder don't flow as smoothly as the cultural narrative, though. In fact, trial transcripts and witnesses agree that Matthew Shepard left the bar willingly with two 21-year-old local thugs. The thugs, who worked as roofers, were in the last violent rampages of a multi-day meth run and were looking for either money or drugs -- or both -- to keep it going. Shepard dressed well and looked like he had money, which he did. Something happened in the pickup between the thugs and Shepard. There are accounts that Shepard came on to one of the thugs. There are theories that Shepard -- who was flamboyantly and unashamedly gay -- wouldn't give them money or drugs or simply wouldn't shut up. What happened next was horrible and inexcusable. The thugs robbed, pistol-whipped and beat Shepard (who was physically slight) and tied his hands behind his back to a pole four inches tall and left him outside the city limits but within sight of Laramie. After leaving Shepard, the thugs got into another fight with two local punks on the streets of Laramie that resulted in their arrest. The next day, a local sheriff's deputy found Matthew Shepard 18 hours after he'd been left. He died days later.
This post is not intended in any way to excuse the heinousness of the crime. The two thugs deserve to be where they are -- in prison awaiting death. But the facts poke holes in the perfect structure of the narrative until the narrative itself starts to weave from side to side. Rarely are drugs part of the narrative. Although what the thugs did was horrible, Matthew Shepard wasn't crucified on a fence. And while I have no doubt Shepard's gayness was a factor in the utter savageness of the beating, there is no concrete evidence that his sexuality was the sole motivating factor in the crime.
Several years ago, my wife and I were guests at a literary conference in the South of France with several other American authors. One author in particular was a loud annoying leftie from Connecticut who made his views known to anyone who would listen and of course the French ate him up. When we met and I told him I was from Wyoming, his first response was, "Oh yeah -- the Matthew Shepard state." My wife held me back. When I cooled down, we both tried to tell him there was more to the story but he refused to listen. The narrative was set and remains set. It is part of our national consciousness, and feeds a certain elite mindset like CO2 feeds plants.
As a Wyoming native and resident, it infuriates me. People I know in this sparsely populated mountain state may be tough and flinty at times, but on the whole they're fair and open-minded. It's not who you are or what your name is but what you do. Folks of any racial or sexual persuasion are revered if they work hard, contribute to the community, and don't screw anyone around. I could give hundreds of examples of proof but this post would get too long. And it would clash with the narrative.
And here we come to Trayvon Martin. The narrative was established early and with thunderous certainty by some. It goes like this: A bitter white guy named George Zimmerman stalked a young black man in a white gated community in Florida and murdered him in cold blood and the local redneck cops didn't even arrest him, which goes to show you that America is still racist, blood-thirsty, and corrupt. There should be a law!
I've followed the case casually and I'm no expert on it. But I do recognize a narrative desperately being pushed whether it turns out to be true or not. Will the narrative stick? Is it so firmly established already that the facts of the case -- whatever they turn out to be -- are beside the point?
In 1998, when Matthew Shepard was murdered, we didn't have the New Media like we do today. The narrative was established early by elites with an agenda.
What do you think? Will it happen again?