Beyond The Fence: Conjuring the Lives of Martyr Matthew Shepard

Matthew Shepard 1976-1998

In some accounts we are told that McKinney and Henderson drove home in a pickup after pistol-whipping Shepard. Henderson repented and cried and then threw up. The men's girlfriends allegedly helped them dump their bloodied clothes; the pair went out again and got into a street fight with two young Hispanic men in a local park. Just past midnight, McKinney jumped Emiliano Morales and whacked him with the butt of his gun. Morales's friend Jeremy Herrera retaliated by clubbing McKinney with a branch. Morales's head wound would later require 21 staples to close; McKinney would suffer a slightly fractured skull. The two were treated in the same local hospital, which was how, in the end, the police came to make such speedy arrests. And that is all we know about the "incident" because the presiding judge at the Albany County Courthouse ordered the papers sealed.

A particularly fugitive component of Shepard's instantly conjured legend was his identity as a member of what Time later termed a "mainstreamed minority." It's not meaningless that this status would have come as a surprise to him. As longtime friend Walt Boulden claims, Shepard "wasn't openly gay." He had informed his parents, who were "not fully accepting." He did not live in secret, according to Boulden, although "he didn't tell people in his class he was gay." Rather, Shepard was the "kind of guy who would walk into a room and people would thinkhe was gay just because he was slightly built." He was, according to friend Meesha Fenimore, "the sweetest guy, the type who wouldn't hurt a fly." His physical stature was such that he did not constitute much obvious threat to the rectal sanctity of Russell Henderson or Aaron McKinney. He was "rather feminine." He was, in certain superficial respects (five-foot-two and 105 pounds), a man easily likened to a woman. And women, as John Durkee, head of the English department at Laramie High School, remarked at one Laramie town meeting, "surely constitute the greatest class of hate crime victims."

This meeting was held at the university on a cold fall evening. Signs around town still spoke to an ambient level of civic denial and grief (Comfort Inn: "Hate and Violence Is Not Our Way of Life"; Arby's: "Hate and Violence Are Not Wyoming Values 5 Regulars $5.95"). There was palpably a sense of relief that the media onslaught had subsided and that, at least temporarily, the Equality State was not universally regarded as the capital of hate.

I had spent the afternoon in the Laramie public library reading about the city's last notorious murder, which occurred in September of 1997. The victim in that case, stabbed numerous times in the upper torso, had been dumped naked on nearby Pole Mountain in six inches of fresh snow. The partly frozen body was discovered by two people out searching for pinecones. The murder of 15-year-old Daphne Kristel Sulk, a teenage runaway, was never categorized as a hate crime, was not reported by national media, and, after some initial front-page coverage, barely even registered in The Laramie Daily Boomerang. The McCaughey septuplets were the big news last fall. Two weeks before Matthew Shepard's accused killers were arrested, a 38-year-old Laramie local named Kevin Robinson was convicted on reduced charges of voluntary manslaughter in Daphne Sulk's killing. According to news accounts, the defendant'sfamily cheered when the verdict came down.

County attorney Cal Rerucha later said that the trial had "revealed a side of life in Laramie that remained hidden from most people." What was truly revealing was the certainty of this statement's easy assumptions. Who were those Laramie innocents? How did they so handily maintain their obliviousness? Had they managed not to notice the abandoned trailer where ninth-grader Sulk was living without electricity, heat, or running water, just blocks from her parents' residence? Had they, in any utilitarian way, noticed that Daphne Sulk, disaffected runaway, was alive?

Did they check out the theatrical grotesquerie of Matthew Shepard's funeral, held in a wet snow in nearby Casper, Wyoming? Supporters who hadn't been able to get into St. Mark's Episcopal Church, where Shepard once served as an acolyte, formed a human chain shielding the dead man's family from the taunts of Reverend Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, and a cast of assorted gargoyles from God Said Ministries in Texas. "Fags Die, God Laughs," the Phelps group chanted, as they routinely do at AIDS funerals across the country. I last caught Phelps's roadshow at Randy Shilts's San Francisco memorial. In that case, too, supporters countered with the temperance anthem "Amazing Grace."

"We're just trying to ignore that," said Reverend Anne Kitch, one of the ministers presiding at the funeral and a cousin of Shepard's. As it happens, there was a good deal of ignoring going on. The day before Shepard was laid to rest, the Laramie City Council voted against enacting hate-crimes legislation at an unannounced, closed meeting not televised on the local cable station. The week after Shepard was cremated, I met a young man on the university campus who told me of a gay friend who'd fled to New York not so much from fear of random violence as from "a little rejection." The night before I left Wyoming, I met Catherine Connolly, a professor in the University of Wyoming's sociology department. At a small gathering intended to put what Connolly called the "lynching of Matt Shepard in context," this lawyer turned professor talked about the murder from an intimate vantage point. As an out lesbian, Connolly had once been informed that her open sexuality was a taint, an invitation to trouble, career suicide. Last summer, when her mother died, the university denied bereavement leave to Connolly's lover, a campus librarian, on the grounds that their relationship "didn't count."

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