Originally appeared in "TRB From Washington," The New Republic, Nov. 22, 1999.
WHY DOES MATTHEW SHEPARD still figure so prominently in the national psyche? More than a year after his murder, the interest has not subsided. The trials of his killers have received hefty media attention; his name is ritually invoked in the debate over hate-crime laws; long articles have appeared in publications as diverse as Harper's and Vanity Fair. He's made the cover of Time. Gay rights groups have been particularly intent on making Shepard a symbol of homosexuality in our time, sending out countless direct-mail pitches featuring him (my mailbox is full of them) and using his story in multiple press releases and TV ads. Last month, the largest gay rights group, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), raised more than half a million dollars at a gala black-tie dinner in his honor. His parents made distraught appeals for HRC's legislative agenda from the podium.
If the Shepard case proved the need for hate-crime laws, this emphasis might make sense. But the case is a somewhat spectacular example of their superfluity. Shepard's murderers were swiftly caught and brought to justice without any such laws. The first is behind bars for life. The second, denied a "gay panic" defense, may get the death penalty. Even advocates of hate-crime legislation concede this point. They know that such laws would primarily affect much less grave misdemeanors.
Similarly, if Shepard's fate proved the ubiquity of anti-gay murders, then his elevation to totemic status might also make sense. But, again, the evidence shows that Shepard is representative of very few gay Americans. According to the FBI, in 1997, the year before Shepard was killed, a total of three hate-crime murders of homosexuals were recorded in the entire United States. This number is not a fiction. Murders are the least underreported of crimes, because bodies have to be accounted for, and the FBI's number is the total reported by some 10,000 reporting agencies across the country. But let's assume that the FBI understates gay hate-crime murders by a factor of five. That makes 15 anti-gay murders a year. Further assume that around five percent of the population is gay. That means that the chance of a gay American meeting the same fate as Matthew Shepard is about one in a million. Or about the same as being hit by a railroad train.
No, the resilience of the Shepard case is about political and cultural symbolism. It is about the need for a victim so blameless and a crime so heinous that a story about the relationship between gay Americans and straight Americans can be told in which there are no complexities and no doubts. So Shepard becomes a martyr, even though, unlike martyrs, he did not choose to die. Shepard is "crucified," even though, in reality, he was tied to a post, his body and head slumped on the ground. After a while, as in the case of the religious right's Columbine "martyr," Cassie Bernall, the facts cease to matter. What matters is the message. And the message is that homosexuals are innocent victims and heterosexuals are either saviors or menaces. You are either enlightened or a bigot � on the side of the victims or on the side of the murderers.
The political use of Shepard began early. Just after his death, there were appropriate outpourings of grief and shock. But then the organized memorials became political rallies in which any opposition to various legislative initiatives was deemed equivalent to complicity in Shepard's murder. The result was a kind of political blackmail--and it continues to this day. Any qualms, for example, about hate-crime laws, and you are deemed a heartless hater. When the Hate Crimes Prevention Act failed in a House-Senate conference last month, HRC's executive director, Elizabeth Birch, declared that the decision "showed a callous disregard for hate-crime victims and their families." As simple as that. Are you a bad person or a good one?
The marketing of Shepard is also a damaging symbolic statement about who gay men still are in this culture. Other recently murdered homosexuals have not achieved anywhere near the same level of attention. Billy Jack Gaither was killed shortly after Shepard, in Alabama, by two men who bludgeoned him to death and then burned his body on a stack of rubber tires. Unlike Shepard, Gaither had reason to trust his attackers - one of them was a drinking buddy. But, unlike Shepard, Gaither is barely remembered. Or take Private Barry Winchell, a gay soldier stationed in Kentucky, murdered at the same age as Shepard. In a barracks fight, Winchell had bested a soldier who gay-baited him. In retaliation, the straight soldier and a gang of other soldiers allegedly dragged Winchell from his bed and beat him to death with a baseball bat. This crime was committed by U.S. soldiers against someone serving his country and supposedly under the protection of the government. The military is still investigating, but a court-martial of the suspected murderer has been scheduled. Barely heard of the incident? It occurred four months ago, but it has none of Shepard's staying power.
The reason, I suspect, is that Shepard's image serves certain political purposes. Winchell and Gaither were clearly men, not boys. One was a soldier; the other was a middle-aged, burly, working-class figure with only average looks. They weren't upper-middle-class; they weren't well-educated; they weren't waifs. They provoke far more mixed reactions. They threaten the weak, effeminate stereotypes of gay men that the victimologists require and that many heterosexuals are more comfortable with. They were more prudent than Shepard was. Confronted with violence, they were more likely to fight, as Winchell did, than to retreat. They suggest a gay world that is strong and grown-up and mainstream--exactly the kind of world that has no need for pity. They suggest the kind of homosexual world that needs protection from crime - as we all do - but has no need for special sympathy or treatment; a world in which a man might want to serve his country or marry another man, but in which the desire for special state protection is less pressing than the desire to be left alone.
Such a world does not exist in the iconography of Shepard or the politics he has inspired. The way he is discussed suggests a child rather than an adult. The name of his memorial website, www.matthewsplace.com, summons up the idea of a child's safe space. The website depicts him crouched sparrow-like on a waterfall, gazing cherubically into the distance while music plays. The point of this iconography is to divest Shepard of any maturity, any manhood, any adult sexuality - for that matter, any true humanity. It is literally to infantilize him, to turn him into a symbol that is at once pitiful and utterly unthreatening to the stereotypes that still burden most homosexual men, stereotypes that continue to weaken our self-confidence and self-respect.
There was a time when African American men were also routinely referred to as "boys," but I don't think civil rights groups ever emphasized this image in order to gain equality. They realized instead that it was only when black Americans stopped being viewed as children that equality was conceivable. The marketing of Matthew Shepard in death is nowhere near as horrifying as what was done to him in life. But that doesn't make it any more palatable. Or any less detrimental to the cause of homosexual equality as a whole.