By rights, Stephen Jimenez ought to be a famous author and his book a bestseller - and taught in journalism schools, law school, and police academy to boot. Because his subject - the murder of Matthew Shepard 17 years ago - is the clearest example of what happens when a favored lobby group inserts itself between the news coverage and reality. The official version - gay martyrdom in the heartland of a bigoted rural America - is still being peddled, in The Huffington Post and on the Oprah Network. The fact that it is completely false makes no difference to the Big Gay enforcers, as Mr Jimenez, who is himself gay, discovered when he set out to tell the truth about what happened.
A few days ago Spiked! in Britain carried a fascinating interview with Jimenez:
Stephen Jimenez spent 13 years researching The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard, which argues that the Matthew Shepard story, a US 21-year-old student who was allegedly beaten to death for being gay in 1998, as it has been popularly told has little, if anything, to do with the details of Matthew's life and death. He spoke with me this week about the book, and some of the well-guarded territory it covers.
Mark Adnum: You've said that the media reported the story of Matthew's murder 'inaccurately from the beginning', and as a result 'an overtly simplistic narrative got set in stone'. What core elements of the story are inaccurate?
Stephen Jimenez: Nearly every national news organisation originally reported that Matthew Shepard and his killers were strangers on the night they met. But Aaron McKinney and Matthew Shepard were not strangers. On the contrary, they had a tangled friendship and personal relationship that involved sex and drugs, primarily crystal meth. They partied together, bought and sold meth from each other, and had gotten to know each other months before the October 1998 attack. Interestingly, Aaron and Matthew were friends before Aaron and his accomplice Russell Henderson began their friendship in early summer 1998.
We've heard endlessly about Matthew being the victim of a 'hate crime', murdered 'because he was gay'. As recently as last week, Rachel Maddow on her NBC News show repeated as fact that Matthew had been 'beaten, tortured and tied to a fence, and left to die, because he was gay'. However, Cal Rerucha, the Albany County attorney who prosecuted the case and served for four consecutive terms, has stated unequivocally that there wasn't evidence of a hate crime, even if there had been a state or federal hate-crime law in place at the time. He was a fierce advocate for the Shepard family during the trial, but has steadfastly refused to cooperate with attempts to use the Shepard case as a case study of a civil-rights violation based on sexual orientation. Last September, he told the Casper Star Tribune, 'If meth [hadn't been present] in this case, we wouldn't have had a murder'.
This isn't just the normal news-interpretation bollocks, or even a question of which end you're coming at it from, like Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown. The official version of Matthew Shepard's death is an outright lie that has led, I would argue, to a miscarriage of justice for one of his two convicted killers. Pace Rachel Maddow, Matthew Shepard didn't die "because he was gay"; he died because he was a meth addict and dealer. He was not a tragic gay; he was a tragic meth head who happened to be gay.
I can recall thinking at the time how strange and unreal was the Matthew Shepard fever promoted by Frank Rich at The New York Times and others. But I wanted to check what I actually wrote back then. This is from my review of The Laramie Project (one of several plays, TV movies, songs and other boosterish art works that appeared in the wake of his murder). It was published in The New Criterion in September 2000 - ie, less than two years after Shepard's death:
It is up to the gay organizations and their cheerleaders in the media if they want to transform Matthew—it's always "Matthew," like "Elian"— into a sexless infant, a poster child who'll always be a child, innocent and unsullied by anything as beastly as fornication (Andrew Sullivan has written more persuasively than I ever could about how perverse an image the infantile, beatific Matthew is at a time when gays have never been more confident, more open, more varied, and less at risk of being gay-bashed than at any time in American history). If that's what the custodians of Matthew's posthumous image are content with, so be it, though it's almost as if his murderers succeeded in their goal: they clubbed him into a shapeless mush. But that won't wash as drama, and the vapid blur of Matthew Shepard is the hole at the heart of this play...
All the plays and movies were like that: Hamlet without the Prince; The Matthew Shepard Story with no Shepard, only a bunch of sheep following the party line. In creating the iconic Matthew, his family and the Big Gay opportunists smothered the real Matthew. As I wrote 15 years ago:
Any number of people have written about Matthew Shepard, and most of them have lapsed, with the lazy herd instinct of American journalism, into the gay-martyr routine: Frank Rich's effusions are a particularly exquisite example of the genre. The best piece on the subject I've seen was in the September 1999 Harper's, by JoAnn Wypijewski, a liberal who dislikes the rush to hate-speech codes... Her line is that McKinney and Henderson were just regular all-American losers whose common or garden dormant bigotry flared into murderous rage because the guys were on a methamphetamine binge: Wyoming, she notes, has a higher per capita meth use than any other state. That's one of those small bald statistics that seems to tell you a lot more than all the hours of Kaufman's interviews. The defense had witnesses to the drug use standing by to use as mitigation in sentencing, but for the trial proper they steered clear of the drugs, figuring the "gay panic" defense would play better—that a jury would be more sympathetic to a straight guy driven nuts by some fag's touch than to a jerk off his head on meth...
Something very odd happened in Laramie: as the District Attorney subsequently conceded, Matthew's parents were given a right of veto over the prosecution's case and even the sentencing. The state didn't ask for the death penalty because the Shepards decided against it. "I'm going to grant you life," as Denis Shepard told Aaron McKinney. But the price he exacted was an extraordinarily wide-ranging gag order on the killers and those who knew them. Effectively, the State of Wyoming has ceded to Mr. and Mrs. Shepard a kind of intellectual copyright over the case.
I didn't know the half of it back in the summer of 2000. That's exactly what the State of Wyoming did. Deference to the bereaved - and no doubt a certain fear of the gay lobby - corrupted not only the prosecution but also the defense team, both of whom meekly accepted the narrative created by Frank Rich & Co thousands of miles from the scene of the crime. As Stephen Jimenez tells Spiked!:
Like every other gay male in America, I was deeply affected by Matthew Shepard's murder. Indeed, I, too, believed the simple black-and-white hate-crime narrative when I first travelled to Wyoming to do research for a screenplay that I planned to write about the murder. When confronted with new information indicating Matthew had known Aaron long before the night he was fatally beaten, and that crystal meth was the glue that connected the two young men, the journalist in me responded without regard to the political consequences.
I understood that I was playing with fire, that if my reporting corroborated these new assertions some members of the advocacy establishment would revile me... Media Matters launched a concerted, relentless smear campaign against me. Anytime my book received positive notice, which was often, Media Matters launched an assault to protect the orthodoxy... I never before fully appreciated the degree to which some on the left can be just as closed-minded and vindictive as their counterparts on the right. I had always considered myself a progressive, but I thought this meant being sceptical of the media, questioning authority and following the money. Now that I understand self-described liberals can be as likely to suppress the truth as conservatives in defence of their turf, I no longer have any use for those political labels.
Upscale urban liberals (if Mr Jimenez will forgive me descending to labels) decided to make the death of Matthew Shepard a "teachable moment". Unfortunately, what they wanted to teach was completely false - a fairy tale about a populace of drooling hicks itching to gay-bash. Yet Shepard's death and what led to it should have been a teachable moment. Sixteen years ago, I think I was vaguely aware of meth addiction. Since then, I've seen it march ever closer to home - hollowing out (along with heroin) decrepit mill towns and rusting farming communities across my part of northern New Hampshire and Vermont. Matthew Shepard's descent into that world led to his death, but look at it from Frank Rich's point of view: Rural meth heads are far too déclassé ever to gain any purchase on the progressive imagination. Meth is banal and sordid and irredeemably provincial, totally lacking in the glamor of sexual-identity politics. So Matthew Shepard died twice: first murdered, and then supplanted in his own life story and replaced by a de-sexed, detoxed tragic cipher.