Beyond The Fence: Conjuring the Lives of Martyr Matthew Shepard


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.”

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 think he 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’s family 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.”

“Why do I speak now?” she asked. “Well, I had an 18-year-old ask how she could possibly stay in a town that’s so inhospitable and dangerous. I realized then that I’d tacitly allowed denigration of people like myself. There’s a history here of prejudice against African Americans, Latinos, American Indians, anyone who’s different. I challenge people to treat [Shepard’s murder] as a call to action. Look at how we address difference in our lives. Think about the institutions you belong to. Does your church ordain gay ministers? Do you have a child in the Boy Scouts, which has explicit rules forbidding homosexual troops or troop leaders? Do you allow thinly veiled comments that denigrate people like me? Do you question the uncontested norm?”

Research assistance: Robert Frederick

One of four articles in our Matthew Shepard: Beyond the Fence feature.