A gay man whose horrific murder has become synonymous with "hate crime" may have been killed over drugs, not homophobia, according to a book written by a gay researcher.
The renewed assertion that Matthew Shepard was targeted because of a methamphetamine deal — not because he was gay — has sparked outrage, soul-searching and exasperation with fiction passed off as fact.
The accepted story, told and retold for 15 years, is that on the night of Oct. 6, 1998, Shepard, 21, accepted a ride from two strangers he met in a bar. When he made unwanted sexual advances toward them, they robbed him, brutally beat him, tied him to a fence and left him to die in the frigid Wyoming night.
Shepard's death by homophobia — upheld at times by testimony at the trial of convicted murderer Aaron McKinney — became a galvanizing event in a national movement against violence targeting gays, enshrined in a federal law against hate crimes, pop culture songs, and a long-running play, "The Laramie Project," which opens Friday at Ford Theater.
But award-winning gay author and journalist Stephen Jimenez spent years reviewing previously sealed case documents and interviewing some 100 people for his tome, "The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths about the Murder of Matthew Shepard," which is officially being released Tuesday.
The book contends that Shepard's murder was more likely a crime sparked by a drug deal gone wrong: Shepard was a known meth dealer and was supposed to have taken in a drug shipment worth $10,000 that night. He and McKinney, a 22-year-old bisexual hustler, were both meth users and had sex with each other on previous occasions, and McKinney was desperate to get the drugs or the money, or both.
In short, Shepard's homosexuality likely played little, if any, role in the crime.
"Have We Got Matthew Shepard All Wrong?" asked a recent article in the Advocate, a popular magazine for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) readers.
Conservatives have jumped at the idea that a liberal fiction is being exposed, saying it fits a pattern of foundational stories in which the facts do not quite fit the popular narrative.
"As we all know now, the back-story that brought us Roe v. Wade was a lie. And here we find the Matthew Shepard story was also a lie," Austin Ruse wrote at Breitbart.com, referring to false claims by Norma "Jane Roe" McCorvey — the plaintiff in the landmark 1972 Supreme Court abortion case — that she got pregnant from a gang rape.
"This week it became obvious that America's sexual revolution has been built on lies," wrote Michael Cook, editor of Mercatornet.com, an Australian website that describes itself as "dedicated to human dignity."
Even the Supreme Court's 2003 Lawrence v. Texas case, which struck down the nation's anti-sodomy laws and paved the way for gay marriage, was built around a case in which the facts were very different from the generally accepted narrative, Mr. Cook and others noted.
As gay law professor Dale Carpenter chronicled in his 2012 book, "Flagrant Conduct," John Lawrence and Tyron Garner weren't in a bedroom, weren't having sex — and weren't even romantically involved with each other — when Texas police burst into Mr. Lawrence's apartment in search of a black man with a gun.
But the unproven sodomy charges — hidden behind the gay men's plea of "no contest" — gave gay-rights lawyers a way to challenge Texas' anti-sodomy law at the highest level.
That "non-story, carefully edited and taken all the way to the Supreme Court, changed America," said Aaron Hicklin, editor-in-chief of Out, a magazine for gay men, and author of the article in the Advocate.
Liberal media-watchdog Media Matters and others have reacted angrily to what they say are efforts to re-spin the Shepard story to de-emphasize the homophobic motive for the murder.
McKinney has denied he had sex or did meth with Shepard, wrote Luke Brinker of Media Matters. "The preponderance of evidence indicates that anti-gay bias was central to Shepard's murder," he wrote, warning against "hate-crime denialists" and "shoddy reporting."
The Matthew Shepard Foundation, led by Shepard's parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, said efforts to "rewrite the story of this hate crime appear to be based on untrustworthy sources, factual errors, rumors and innuendo rather than the actual evidence gathered by law enforcement and presented in a court of law."
Rather than responding to such theories, the foundation said, "we recommit ourselves to honoring Matthew's memory, and refuse to be intimidated by those who seek to tarnish it."
GLAAD, the anti-defamation group for LGBT people, declined to comment on the book Friday, but the group has joined others in noting that McKinney tried to use a "gay panic" defense at his trial. McKinney and Russell Henderson — then 21, who accepted a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty — are serving life in prison.
In recent videos on gay conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan's website The Dish, Mr. Jimenz said that "Matt Shepard was murdered because he became involved with a group of dealers who were involved in transporting meth back and forth between Wyoming and Colorado."
"On the night the attack happened, there was a shipment — a regular shipment — of meth coming into Laramie that Matthew was involved with. Matthew was actually slated that night to be one of the two people who was making the run," Mr. Jimenez said.
McKinney, who had been strung out on meth for five days, was broke, couldn't afford to pay his rent and owed money to drug dealers. He knew about the shipment and Shepard's role in the transaction.
"So, ultimately what Aaron was really after when he met up with Matthew at the Fireside bar was the shipment of meth," which was worth $10,000 to $20,000, Mr. Jimenez said.
At the last minute, however, Shepard was pulled off the run and couldn't produce the meth, Mr. Jiminez said, and a robbery plan turned into a vicious murder.
How did the "hate-crime" story get launched?
While Shepard was alive in the hospital, some of his friends began talking about him as an innocent gay man who was "lynched" by ignorant, backward homophobes. That narrative spread like wildfire, and by the time of his passing, "the question had been firmly settled," Mr. Hicklin wrote in the Advocate.
In the end, however it happened, Shepard's horrible murder was "a kind of hate crime — just not as straightforward as the one we've embraced all these years," Mr. Hicklin concluded.
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