This month marks the 15th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard. Here’s what we know to be true: on the night of October 6, 1998, Shepard, 21 years old, was pistol-whipped, tortured, and tied to a fence, left to die, in a field outside of Laramie, Wyoming. His attackers were Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who Shepard had met that night at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie. While the pair confessed to the murder and are currently serving life sentences in prison, the motives have always been unclear: was it robbery, as they said, or did they beat and murder Shepard because he was gay? Stories have changed pretty frequently, but one outcome of Shepard’s murder was the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (commonly known as the Matthew Shepard Act), signed into law by President Barack Obama in October 2009. A new book, however, claims that Shepard’s death was the result of different motivations, and that his beating wasn’t a hate crime at all.
Journalist Stephen Jimenez spent ten years researching the case and interviewing Laramie residents close to those involved, and this is what he has deduced in The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard: not only did Matthew Shepard know one of his attackers, Aaron McKinney, he had a sexual relationship with him. Furthermore, their relationship centered around methamphetamine use and dealing, but Jimenez argues that Shepard’s drug dealing was hardly a casual, extracurricular activity while he was attending the University of Wyoming; Jimenez claims that Shepard was a major player in a meth-dealing ring.
This is uncomfortable, complicated news that has sparked the expected controversy. The Matthew Shepard Foundation has rejected the book, as has Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother. When a version of these allegations first surfaced in a 20/20 segment co-produced by Jimenez (who sold his story to the ABC show when his assignment to write a piece for The New York Times Magazine was killed), the artistic director of the Tectonic Theater Project, Moisés Kaufman, responsible for The Laramie Project, denounced the allegations that Shepard knew McKinney through Laramie’s meth underworld. Additionally, right-wing groups have latched onto The Book of Matt in order to invalidate hate-crime legislation.
First of all, there are a lot of problems with The Book of Matt. To begin, it reads as a trashy, sensational tell-all, based almost entirely on anecdotal evidence from other people who apparently knew Shepard and McKinney through Laramie’s meth scene. One must take such gossipy stories, several from anonymous sources, with a grain of salt, considering some of these stories were told to Jimenez nearly a decade after Shepard’s murder (and the sources were, again, people who frequently used meth, so one can imagine they aren’t entirely reliable). It’s also suspect that a relatively unknown journalist was able to get these allegations out in the open years after the media circus that descended upon Laramie following the murder and during the McKinney and Henderson’s trials.
All of which is to say that there is, essentially, no proof that any of these allegations are true. But even if they were — that Matthew Shepard and Aaron McKinney had a relationship, that Shepard had a meth addiction, that the murder was part of a major drug conspiracy that the Laramie police department covered up, that the myth surrounding Shepard’s death was trumped up by the liberal media and federal government (Jimenez casually mentions that Shepard’s death was a distraction from the Lewinsky scandal) — none of those things dispute the fact that Matthew Shepard was violently tortured and murdered, that his apparent addiction was indicative of a larger problem within the gay community at the time, and that his demise was, despite what one may argue otherwise, a result of his being gay.
But that’s only if all of the allegations are true. In fact, the story of what really happened remains very blurry, and the details in The Book of Matt are very fuzzy and hard to believe. Take, for example, the basic notion that Shepard, a 21-year-old college student who stood 5’2″ and weighed 105 pounds (the police officer who responded to the crime scene mistook him for a 13-year-old) was a major player in a violent drug ring.
The Book of Matt reads like speculative fiction more than anything else, and it’s hard to see the point of releasing a book like this in the first place. What do we get out of it? How does it change the way we view these very recent events? There may be some who wish to reject Matthew Shepard’s existence as a symbol for LGBT violence and hatred, but I don’t expect this book to change any of that, nor should it. Shepard was human, after all, but his death will remain symbolic simply because he was made a martyr. Jimenez may wish to change the wider perception of Matthew Shepard, but his attempts — unlike Matt’s death — will likely be in vain.