Beyond The Fence: Conjuring the Lives of Martyr Matthew Shepard

Matthew Shepard 1976-1998

Laramie, Wyoming--Crucifixion was not the right symbol. Lynching was also incorrect. A coyote nailed to a fence in warning was as near as anyone came to getting right the imagery of Matthew Shepard's murder, and even that only went so far.

The fence, for one thing, was not in the middle of the prairie. It was not on remote rangeland set far off the highway. The photographic angle universally chosen to emblematize Shepard's death said a good deal more about the willed imperatives of this particular sacrificial narrative than about the available facts. In certain ways, the picture obliged both a fabulist media and a local need to nullify October 6. It suited the martyrologists and an amnesiac culture as well. Some people in Laramie went so far as to claim that the basket of memorial flowers had been arranged on the fence just to enhance the cover of Time.

Knowing that the place Aaron J. McKinney and Russell Henderson allegedly chose as the setting for Matthew Shepard's beating was in a wealthy subdivision is, at the very least, complicating. It introduces the unspoken issue of class. And, while it is true that the "remote" buck fence where he was strung up stands back from a dirt road, the route itself runs through the enclave of Sherman Hills Estates, whose stone gates give on to some of the costliest real estate (houses from $145,000 to $415,000) in a small city where the median household income is $26,559. Set just a mile from the local Wal Mart are fake adobes and neo-Tudors and outsized bastard ranches clustered on streets with names commemorating the landscape they've supplanted. This being snow country, the houses are situated close to each other and also to all kinds of vehicular access. There is, in other words, no part of Snowy Mountain Range Road where one loses sight of pseudo-mansions elevated to capitalize on the high-plains panoramas. There is no pseudo-mansion without its commanding view. Yet it is here that Shepard's body somehow hung in the cold unnoticed for fully 18 hours until two bicyclists "happened" along. he kept disappearing. The thought recurs with disturbing regularity during a week spent in Laramie, where I arrived just after the network news locusts departed, with no personal agenda beyond an interest in posthumous erasure and a desire to understand what had actually occurred. Gay lives have a tendency to burn into nothingness. With the mysteriousness of imaginary beings, they evanesce. This is just as true of martyrs as heroes, and you could see it beginning to happen already at the 1000-person memorial held at the University of Wyoming on the night I got to town. A dominant theme of this event was a generalized sadness for someone few present had actually met. The story repeated itself at group discussions ("Hostility Bites," sponsored by campus Men Against Violence), at town meetings, in the scant accounts of the local press. Elsewhere, of course, Shepard was being transformed into a symbol of rage so immense and inchoate it was hard to imagine that, until lately, he had actually been a young man.

Certain humanizing facts are established. He liked techno. He occasionally traveled to the Tornado, a club in Fort Collins, Colorado, to dance. He dressed with what, given his geographical circumstances, was a certain misplaced panache. He was not a prudent drunk. On the night of the assault, Shepard canceled last-minute movie plans with a friend in order to attend a gay alliance meeting, then went to the Fireside bar. There he ordered a Heineken and a mixed drink and left, apparently, in company with his alleged murderers. He did not attract any particular attention. "He didn't really interact with people," bartender Matt Galloway remarked later. "He's definitely not the type to approach someone." McKinney and Henderson, on the other hand, were local rowdies who had come to the Fireside and split a $5.50 pitcher of beer that they paid for with change. Galloway said afterward that he "didn't notice any confrontation" between Shepard and his alleged attackers and that "there wasn't enough people to not notice." Shepard never showed up for his exam or any of his classes the following school day. No one reported him gone.

We are informed now that, during what county court judge Robert Castor referred to in court papers as "the incident," the victim "was begging for his life." We're informed that the defendants took Shepard's wallet and also his child-sized patent-leather shoes. We are told--because one of the defendants' girlfriends, 18-year-old Kristen Leann Price, improvidently said so to 20/20--that Shepard walked up to Russell Henderson at the Fireside and "said that he was gay and wanted to get with Aaron and Russ." What followed, in Price's words, was a social corrective, a lesson administered by Henderson and McKinney "to teach him . . . not to come on to straight people." This particular lesson is well entrenched in the annals of American criminal proceedings, where it's known as the "homosexual panic" defense. Often and successfully invoked after gay bashings, homosexual panic has been used to suggest, as the gender theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick explains, that "all gay men may plausibly be accused of making sexual advances to strangers and, worse, that violence, often to the point of homicide, is a legitimate response to any sexual advance whether welcome or not."

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