The Problem With Martyrs


moment ABC’s “20/20” announced it would air an hour-long
show on the “real facts” behind the 1998 Matthew Shepard
murder, controversies began to swirl. Without having seen the program,
groups such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD),
a media watchdog organization; Lambda Legal Defense, a nonprofit
legal-advocacy organization; and the Matthew Shepard Foundation
(run by his parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard), sensed that the “20/20”
story would attempt to “de-gay” the murder of the 21-year-old
Wyoming college student, which everyone —up until now—had
claimed was a homophobic hate crime. These groups, and others, called
for everything from urging ABC to cancel the show to calling their
journalistic ethics into question. Joan Garry of GLAAD noted, “This
was indeed a complex murder; no one is suggesting otherwise. But
for ‘20/20’ to lay out a case based on speculation, innuendo,
the avoidance of critical facts, sources lacking in basic credibility,
and reliance on conflicting pieces of information is reckless journalism.” 

“20/20” exposé (which aired Friday, November 26,
during Thanksgiving weekend) made the case that Shepard’s murder
was not a hate crime, but a robbery gone horribly wrong. While the
show contained some interesting reporting, it failed to provide
the complete context of what happened. It left us with more questions,
not just about what happened that night, but about how we, as a
culture, create victims and martyrs to serve our causes and purposes.

Shepard has become an international symbol of how hatred of gay
people can erupt in homicidal behavior. Mercilessly pistol-whipped
and then tied to a fence in freezing temperatures on a deserted
road, Shepard died two days later. His murder was the basis for
two television films and an award-winning documentary play,

Laramie Project

, as well as the incentive for national organizing
to stop violence against gay people. Through the Matthew Shepard
Foundation, Judy Shepard has become a spokesperson for anti-violence
campaigns and a series of pro-gay projects. There is no doubt the
political and cultural ramifications of Shepard’s murder are
still being felt today. The power of his story rests on the notion
that he was a completely “innocent” victim—young,
slight, unworldly, naive. Shepard was the perfect victim as well
as the perfect martyr. 

what are we to make of the “20/20” revelations (described
as “shocking”) that: (1) Shepard was HIV-positive and
apparently very upset and depressed about it; (2) he was a frequent
user of crystal meth and part of a Laramie bar-and- nightlife community
that was involved in meth use; (3) he knew his killer, Aaron McKinney,
through this drug connection and the two had been seen socializing;
(4) McKinney was an active bisexual with a history of engaging in
sex with men (something he denied on “20/20”); (5) McKinney
and Russell Henderson did not kill Matthew Shepard because he was
gay, but rather their attempt to rob him went terribly wrong when
McKinney flew into a meth-fueled rage and beat Shepard to death. 

the producers of “20/20” go out of their way to condemn
the murder and to praise the good work that’s been done in
Shepard’s name, there is something discomforting lurking behind
the show’s we-are-just-doing-this-to- clarify-what-happened

are several problems. The first was that—as GLAAD noted —this
is shabby investigative journalism, even by TV standards. The assertion
that Aaron McKinney supposedly slept with many men comes from one
source, not the standard two sources needed. That source was a man
who had a sexual contact with McKinney at an all night drug and
drinking party. Sex with one man doesn’t necessarily make McKinney
bisexual or gay, it might just make him drunk and on meth and willing
to do something he never did before or after. 

the claim that Matthew Shepard was HIV-positive (a claim that has
been made since the murder itself) has no tenable connection to
the case. This is simply sensationalism, the net effect of which
is to deflate the public image of Shepard as the “perfect victim.”
Also, the claim that Shepard was a crystal meth user and was known
to McKinney beforehand reinforces the idea that there were drugs
involved in the crime, but this information was in many of the original

leads us to a third problem. “20/20” presents viewers
with a false choice: Shepard was murdered either because he was
gay or because he was a robbery victim. Common sense tells us McKinney
and Henderson could have targeted him because they thought he had
money and because they thought that a  small and fragile-looking
gay person was a more perfect mark. These two reasons can co-exist.
There is no need to choose one or the other. Most crimes have multiple
causes and this one probably was no exception. By positing a dynamic
in which we are expected to choose between “hate crime”
and “robbery,” “20/20” reinforces the sensationalist
slant of the show. And to what purpose? Are they suggesting that
gay-bias hate crimes don’t exist? They never say that, of course,
but that is one conclusion audiences might make. The National Coalition
of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), which called the “20/20”
segment “irresponsible,” “biased,” “shameful,”
and “destructive,” noted that their own data showed that
anti-gay and transgender violence increased 26 percent nationally
at the end of 2003, and has continued to rise throughout 2004. One
has to wonder if “20/20” will spend a full hour looking
at the complexity and range of homophobic hate crimes, rather than
proving one specific crime was misunderstood and misrepresented
by the media. 

problem relates to the lure and power of Matthew Shepard as the
perfect victim—for the media as well as for the gay and lesbian
community. While “20/20” assures us this was a terrible
crime, it ends up implying that Shepard was a less-than-completely-innocent
victim who might have been, in some way, complicit in his own death.
Let’s face it: the general population is going to have less
sympathy for a wealthy, HIV-positive, meth-snorting college kid
than for the angelic, fragile icon that has been presented to us. 

canonization of Matthew Shepard is not unusual. It happens all the
time when political and social movements need a saint or a martyr.
These figures function symbolically, almost as myths or archetypes.
They are often victims—think of the women who died in the Triangle
Shirtwaist Factory fire, the children at Mi Lai, even Anne Frank—and
the process by which they come to represent the power and justness
of a cause is both simple and complex. In a dichotomized world view,
in which the justness of a cause is predicated on the total innocence
of those who personify it, the promotion of the “perfect victim”
makes sense.

of any sort, has always demanded that representation be as simple
and as powerful as possible. On some level this works. How better
to show the logical consequences of capitalism than to focus on
the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire? How better to illustrate the
genocidal horrors of the U.S. war against Vietnam than to point
to the Mi Lai massacre? How better to show both the singularity
and the enormity of the Holocaust than to glorify the


of Anne Frank? 

this isn’t how the real world works. People’s lives are
messy and complicated. The victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory
and Mi Lai are essentially faceless; historians have chosen not
to detail the specificity of their lives. In some sense, they function
better as symbols because they remain faceless, almost anonymous.
This is not the case with Anne Frank. From the first publication
of her diary, Frank’s image was manipulated and shaped. Her
father, Otto, censored anything in the


that would reflect
badly on Anne or her family. Her natural interest in sex was removed.
Her negative comments about her mother were cut out. Her perceptive
explications about national and world politics were reduced to the
sentimental banality of the phrase, “…but despite every-
thing I still believe in the goodness of people.” 

fact, the power of Frank’s


has been chipped away
by those who would prefer to promote the image of the preternaturally
innocent teenager rather than the more complex person. As Cynthia
Ozick wrote in

Who Owns Anne Frank?

, “The story of Anne
Frank in the fifty years since

The Diary of a Young Girl

was first published has been bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted,
traduced, reduced; it has been infantilized, Americanized, homogenized,
sentimentalized; falsified, kitschified, and, in fact, blatantly
and arrogantly denied.” 

the parallels between Anne Frank and Matthew Shepard are not exact,
there are interesting intersections. The power of the Matthew Shepard
story rests on his being the innocent victim. His gayness had to
be presented in such a way that it was free of all possible homophobic
interpretations. He could not be seen in the news reports of his
death as being anything but perfect: he was friendly, he was loved
by everyone, he had a vision of world peace, he was good looking,
he never made enemies, he was the traditional boy next door in all
ways—except he was gay. He put a “human face” on
hate crimes. 

flip side of this meant that Matthew Shepard couldn’t have
problems, couldn’t be a stereotypical flaming queen, couldn’t
be promiscuous, and couldn’t even be sexual. In a deeply homophobic
culture, the overt brutality of Shepard’s murder could be understood
as brutal only in direct contrast to his innocence. This, obviously,
is not a problem with Matthew Shepard, but with our culture. 

“20/20” reports that Shepard was a crystal meth user,
that he liked to party with the drug crowd, and that he was HIV-positive
(during the AIDS epidemic when he would have understood the consequences
of unsafe sex), the show—whether they meant to or not—diminished
the importance of gay bias crimes. The “20/20” contention
that the murder of Shepard was not a hate crime only works because
they also repeatedly showed that he was not an “innocent victim.” 

course he wasn’t. Who is? Even today, after nearly 40 years
of second-wave feminism, rape victims are judged by their sexual
history, even how they were dressed. In a world that continues to
see gay men as sexual predators, disease carriers, criminals, and
socially dangerous, its’s no wonder that to get Matthew Shepard’s
brutal murder to be taken seriously the truth of his life had to
be compromised and misrepresented. 

problem is that gay activists and the mainstream media both agree—for
similar reasons—that this compromise is necessary and useful.
The original coverage of the Shepard murder would not have been
the same (or as extensive) if his HIV status or his alleged drug
use was a factor. One of the ironies of the “20/20” piece
is that because of the raised public consciousness of gay bias crimes,
it is now permissible for his murderers to go on national television
and say they were totally fucked up crystal-meth addicts rather
than homophobic. Progress, sort of. 

problem was not one invented by “20/20.” It is the result
of a world so twisted by hatred of gay people that the only way
Shepard’s brutal murder can be taken seriously is to see him
as the ultimate innocent victim. Matthew Shepard was human and no
one who is human can be completely, perfectly innocent. If the need
to define hate crimes and to argue against homophobic violence means
we have to extract them from the complicated fabric of everyday
life, then we are all in trouble—more trouble than “20/20”
can ever cause with this exposé.

Michael Bronski
is an activist and writer. His most recent book is