What If Matthew Shepard's Murder Wasn't an Anti-Gay Hate Crime?

When an Object Lesson in Hatred Gets Muddy

Symbol: Matthew Shepard’s murder became a rallying cry for gay rights advocates.
Getty Images
Symbol: Matthew Shepard’s murder became a rallying cry for gay rights advocates.

By Kenneth S. Stern

Published September 09, 2013, issue of September 13, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • It’s over. The tyranny of the straight-haired, button nosed, tan-skinned girl has ended. Jewesses rejoice!
  • It's really, really, really hard to get kicked out of Hebrew school these days.
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.