The Matthew Shepard Icon


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 Story begins—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 is a kind of cross. The bigots who picketed his funeral are like the mob that mocked Jesus. The plea from Shepard’s parents to spare the killer’s life was a Christian gesture. When people act out the stuff of religious myths, how can drama avoid it?

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 Story echoes 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 Story is 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.

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?

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.