How important is historical truth?
The obvious answer is “very.” Just think of Holocaust denial, which is anti-Semitism built upon historical distortions.
But what if an effort to counter hate is based on an inspirational story — and that story is a lie?
That’s the moral quandary at the heart of journalist Steve Jimenez’s newly released nonfiction book, “The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard” (Steerforth Press, 2013).
In the interests of full disclosure, Steve Jimenez was a high school classmate of mine. When we met again at our 40th reunion two years ago, he told me he had spent more than a decade trying to ascertain the facts of the 1998 Matthew Shepard murder. It was a story I thought I knew well — like most people, I was (and remain) appalled by this vicious crime. Shepard was a gay University of Wyoming student who met two men at a bar, men who were supposedly so violently anti-gay that they beat him senseless and left him tied up to a fence outside Laramie.
Shepard died, and his murder became a powerful symbol of the need to include attacks on LGBT people in hate crime legislation. Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mom, and I were both keynote speakers at a 2001 conference on hate crime, and I found her courage in the face of such an indescribable loss inspiring. I have been, and remain, a strong proponent of hate crime legislation. In 2009 President Obama signed a new hate crime bill into law, one that included LGBT people under its provisions. It is known as the “Matthew Shepard Act.”
But Steve Jimenez makes a compelling case that this horrific murder was not a hate crime at all.
The story reported in the media, and largely presented at trial, was a simple one. Shepard was in the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, Wyoming, when he met two young men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Supposedly Shepard told these strangers he was gay. They left the bar with him, then pistol whipped and tortured him, and left him to die tied up to a fence at the end of town. They allegedly did this because Shepard was gay. McKinney at one point even used a “gay panic defense,” asserting that he had been so shocked by Shepard’s alleged sexual advances, he was somehow not culpable.
But McKinney and Shepard were not strangers. They had many friends in common, and had socialized with each other. And they had an even deeper history. Both were dealing (and using) methamphetamine, and as such were business rivals. McKinney was also bisexual, and had had sexual relations with Shepard.