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Op-ed: Why I'm Not Reading the 'Trutherism' About Matt Shepard

Op-ed: Why I'm Not Reading the 'Trutherism' About Matt Shepard

A new book aims to get the real story behind Matthew Shepard's murder, but is emboldening the right wing and sullying Shepard's image worth a still-unclear "truth"?

Nealsmaller2_7I have a poster in my office -- it's the cover of The Advocate's 40th anniversary issue. In the middle, next to k.d. lang and Grethe Cammermeyer, is the face of Matthew Shepard. As I strained for the right word the other day, my eyes settled on Matt's face; soon I zeroed in on it. I forgot how fragile and adorable he was. It made sense that the world wanted to protect him and make everything better, even after he was dead. Then I thought about sex and meth.

The narrative on Matt is changing, mostly thanks to a forthcoming book on Shepard from journalist Stephen Jimenez, The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard. Jimenez says the story behind Matt's 1998 murder was more complicated than we thought and maybe it wasn't really a hate crime, after all, but a drug-fueled killing involving people who knew each other. I'll be clear right now: I have not read Jimenez's book. From things I have read about it, including a thought-provoking piece from The Advocate's consulting editor Aaron Hicklin, I know it's not for me. The Book of Matt digs up Matt's past like he's Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks, with accusations of drug-dealing and a possible sexual relationship with one of his killers. Jimenez is ostensibly getting the facts and showing it to the world as a service of the truth. But to me, it feels lurid and cruel. Matt never agreed to be a public figure; he never ran for office or appeared on a reality show. I guess being beaten senseless and left to die is consent enough to allow writers to denigrate your reputation and victimize you again.

Jimenez wants to tell the "real story" of Matt's murder. But to what end? For what purpose? A fellow journalist tells me he always seeks the truth, and Jimenez is doing just that. I want to know what really went down in Benghazi and if Hillary is planning a presidential bid, but I don't want to know if Matthew Shepard had a three-way in a limo 15 years ago or dabbled in meth dealing or was HIV-positive. It doesn't change the fact that he's dead and that being an out gay man contributed to that death. If the killing was drug-related, how do we measure how much it was because of meth and how much it was because of antigay hate; if the homophobia is over 50% of the motivation, can we still call it a hate crime? If not, should we change the name of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act? I respect any reporter who conducts 13 years of research on a subject, as Jimenez did, but weren't there more worthy tales to pick apart?

Not to Jimenez. "My principal reason for writing The Book of Matt stemmed from my discovery that the tragedy of Matthew's murder was bigger and more complicated than most people understood at the time," he tells me. "As a gay man who survived the AIDS epidemic -- who experienced the death of so many friends -- I was stunned by the devastating impact of the crystal meth epidemic in our community, as well as in parts of rural America. Once I learned of Matthew's previously unreported involvement with this drug, I felt the moral imperative to investigate and report that part of the story. If we're serious about preventing similar tragedies, we need to understand what really happened -- and why -- which means coming to terms with Matthew in all his human complexity and not merely as a symbol."

Fair enough, but then why isn't there a reference to crystal in the title or the cover? If the motivation was bringing to light the scourge of meth, which is not news to anyone, it's hard to tell from the book jacket.

Some speculate that Jimenez's intentions with the Shepard story aren't purely truth-telling. When he went to the murder scene in Laramie, Wyo., in 2000, it was to write a straightforward screenplay on what happened two years earlier, according to his publisher's description of the book. "But what Jimenez eventually found in Wyoming was a tangled web of secrets," according to the synopsis, which makes Matt's life sound like a V.C. Andrews novel. Media Matters, an organization that challenges the spin of right-wing media, is not shy about calling Jimenez a journalistic ambulance-chaser. The right wing is latching on to the Shepard "trutherism" authored by Jimenez, creating headlines and stories and getting reactions from liberals, which they hint -- in a release sent to media -- may have been Jimenez's intention from the beginning.

The journalist coproduced a 20/20 segment in 2004 that touched on the drug connections between victim and killers (this was about a month into my hiring at The Advocate, and I can still remember the anger it created among the editors and writers who reported on Matt's death six years earlier). Months before any reporting for the 20/20 piece began, Jimenez wrote a letter to Judy Shepard concluding that her son's murder was more about drugs than hate, and two months into the reporting, an internal ABC email verified that the piece's thesis was that the murder was mostly a drug crime. Now, Jimenez had been reporting on the story for four years at that point, but many reporters, including myself at some points, have stories in their head and then seek out sources to back up their assertions. But Jimenez denies he ever had an agenda.

"I approached this story first and foremost as a journalist, with the aim of examining the truth," he says. "The angle of the 20/20 story was not decided before our reporting was finished. We gathered a huge body of information during the investigation -- including official court documents, police reports, and other material provided by reliable sources -- that strongly suggested that most media reports had misrepresented key facts, and that some public officials had misrepresented them as well."

Since I haven't read the book, I can't and won't pick apart granular assertions. But in the largest sense, I find problems with the fact that killer Aaron McKinney, who Jimenez accuses of doing drugs and having sex with Matt prior to the murder, never admits to sleeping with men. If he did indeed have sex with Matt or was bisexual, he can't bring himself to "admit" it, even now. McKinney either didn't have sex with Matt or is gripped by internalized homophobia, which is still homophobia. That seems relevant.

Maybe my refusal to read Jimenez's book and, admittedly, my anger toward it stem from my deep connection to Matt, who was eight months and one day older than me. We had the same slight build and baby face, and around the time of his killing many looked at me like I was either related to Matt or in danger of ending up how he did. I was a drug-using out kid at a public university who dealt with bad dudes and slept with the wrong men, including those who had girlfriends and considered themselves "straight." It's simply luck that I wasn't tied to a post and left to die. I guess it's also luck that I have the choice whether to splay my dirty laundry out for the world to see, while Matt doesn't. But at least we have the "truth."

NEAL BROVERMAN is a columnist for The Advocate and the editor in chief of Out Traveler. Follow him on Twitter @nbroverman.

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