The Matthew Shepard Icon

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

Imagine the incredulous reaction to a woman who tried to justify killing a man by claiming that he'd caressed her thigh. Yet that's often been the first line of defense in a gay murder, and it's precisely what Shepard's assailant told police. Though the homo-panic defense didn't wash with the jury, it got much further in the hip precincts of the media. Camille Paglia proclaimed that Shepard's death was the result of his predilection for rough sex with straights. In other words, he asked for it. As with many of Paglia's pronouncements, this one corresponded to the thoughts many straight liberals harbored but were unwilling to articulate about the Shepard case. Reviews of these new films that complain about what they don't mention (in the NBC movie, Shepard's HIV status; in the HBO drama, the fact that his killer's mother was found dead shortly before the case went to trial) should be seen in this suspect light.


It's understandable that the right would object to the Matthew Shepard icon. They would prefer the media to publicize the recent murder of a teenager by two gay men in an s/m rite—and they've said so. But why would the gay right resent this martyr? Ostensibly because they think it's wrong to identify with a victim of violence. These homocons would be far more proud of Shepard if he had pulled a gun and mowed his killers down. But that begs the question of why many people (some of them gay) are repelled by the idea of identifying with a fragile man—and acknowledging his desirability. Quite possibly this is the root fear that drove Shepard's killers, and it may well be what makes this case such a lightning rod. But what if the icon of Jesus actually fits the taking of Matthew Shepard's life?

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.

After all, the power of an icon is its ability to distill the essential from the welter of particularities. That's why the story of Jesus has such enormous resonance, even for nonbelievers willing to feel it, and it's why the Matthew Shepard story has the power to alter consciousness. Both embody a truth all the more elemental because it keeps repeating itself in human history: Morality without compassion is a sin.

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