The Matthew Shepard Icon

Sometimes the Image of a Martyr Fits the Victim of a Crime

His murder has inspired no fewer than three made-for-TV movies. The first, Anatomy of a Hate Crime, was shown on MTV last year as part of its response to hate chic. Now that the war has redirected such hostile impulses, you'd expect the theme of murdered gays to be relegated to the Taliban-atrocity genre. But last week HBO premiered The Laramie Project, an ambitious new film about the Matthew Shepard case, and this Saturday NBC will broadcast a drama of its own. There's no reason why these two movies should overlap; the murder occurred in October of 1998, so there's no anniversary to observe. But it can't be coincidental that both films are being shown in the shadow of Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Not that either work makes a direct connection between the martyred Jesus and the gay boy beaten senseless, strung up on a fence, and left to die. But the association is unavoidable given the details of Shepard's murder, and NBC's depiction leaves no doubt about it. From the moment The Matthew Shepard Storybegins—with the graphic bludgeoning of this frail young man—to its final close-up of a makeshift memorial cross, the film presents images that evoke the crucifixion (and, when the body is discovered by a policewoman, the pietà).

The Laramie Project, which is still running on HBO, studiously avoids milking such metaphors; it doesn't even re-enact the crime. But the broader Christian themes of indifference to suffering, and of intolerance passing for righteousness, hover over this film, if only because they were present in the actual event. The fence to which Shepard was bound isa kind of cross. The bigots who picketed his funeral arelike the mob that mocked Jesus. The plea from Shepard's parents to spare the killer's life wasa Christian gesture. When people act out the stuff of religious myths, how can drama avoid it?

NBC tells the Matthew Shepard Story: The fence to which he was bound is a kind of cross.
Annie Chia
NBC tells the Matthew Shepard Story: The fence to which he was bound is a kind of cross.

The same can be said for the domestic aspect of this story. NBC's movie focuses on the agony of Shepard's parents, which is no surprise since they were paid consultants. But even if they hadn't been involved, the film probably would have revolved around the Shepards. It's become a TV-movie trope to treat a gay man's crisis as an occasion to plumb the American family. No wonder The Matthew Shepard Storyechoes another NBC film, the 1985 AIDS drama An Early Frost.

Yet for all its sentimentality, NBC's Shepard movie doesn't stint from portraying the danger that surrounded his life. His parents rightly saw to it that viewers would understand the abuse their son was subject to, despite his affluence. This double message—danger amid security—is the state of many gay people's lives. It's a reality few heterosexuals can truly grasp. (If more straight people did, perhaps they wouldn't be so quick to valorize the likes of Eminem.)

But the most subversive thing about both films is the way they address the social nature of homophobia. The Shepard murder is not presented as the perverse work of psychopaths but as the extreme manifestation of a system whose premise is so widely accepted that it isn't even evident to the good folks of Laramie, who say the most atrocious things about gay people while insisting on their tolerance. We can bask in our revulsion at such sentiments or search our souls for similar, if more subtle, reflexes. And this is where the Christian iconography comes in. Making a connection between Jesus' torment and Matthew's turns the theological justification for homophobia on its head. When a Laramie minister expresses his hope that Shepard had a moment while dying to reflect on the consequences of his lifestyle, it reminds us anew that what was said of the recreant can also apply to the reverent: They know not what they do.


The Laramie Project makes that point in a much more sophisticated way—and it's a far more artful drama—but by daring to sound a religious note, albeit softly, NBC's film is actually the more audacious work. Bear in mind that it's being broadcast by a major American network at a time when the right has declared a jihad against liberal bias in the media. The Matthew Shepard Storyis bound to provoke the same intensely ambivalent response that the real Matthew Shepard story always has.

From the moment news of this crime broke, two processes were simultaneously unleashed. Shepard became the ideal symbol of virulent homophobia—and a corporeal plea for hate-crimes law—but he also became the focus of a concerted effort to reject that meaning, and not just from the right. As the media rushed to officiate at his canonization, progressives objected to its flattening effect. The Shepard case became a red flag for death penalty activists, straight and gay, and it produced some of the finest crime reporting since the days of Truman Capote. In Harper's, JoAnn Wypijewski unearthed the complexities at work in this murder, demonstrating that class—and in one killer's case, child abuse—had as much as homophobia to do with the attack.

Still, this complicating process raises questions of its own. After all, the motivation for every murder is complex, but only some crimes are deemed worthy of unpacking. When it comes to lynching, little ink is spilled exploring the underlying reasons for these acts. Shepard's murder was, in fact, a lynching, yet it elicited an unusual demand for details that would contravene the hate-crime paradigm. Wypijewski was careful not to make the victim seem responsible for his death, but other writers were far less scrupulous. As the press discovered Shepard's HIV-positive status and his alleged attraction to straight men, this information was used to undercut the icon.

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