Matthew Shepard, the Man

The savage, Christ-like murder of Matthew Shepard ranks up with the bombing of an Alabama church in 1963 that killed four black girls, and Kent State, as grim reminders of what the struggle for freedom entails for ordinary citizens in a country supposedly based on the notion that "all men (and presumably women) are created equal." Governor Jim Gerringer of Wyoming has called for a "dialogue" on "tolerance" and "homophobia."

Will a truly honest "dialogue" result? I have my doubts. By and large, both the gay community and the homophobes, both religious and non, have taken victim-identified stands of I-AM-TOTALLY-RIGHT-AND-YOU-ARE-TOTALLY-WRONG. The resulting self-righteouness clouds any honest reflection, blocking any real progress.

Such has been the case with the portrait of Matthew Shepard given to us by his friends, and most journalists. He has been described as kind, loving, sensitive, tolerant, open-minded, caring, and "an angel." I have no doubt he was most of those things. The photos we have of him project an uncommon gentility. That, and his physical slightness-5'2", 105 lbs, make the pathos of his cruel departure all the more wrenchingly sad.

Still, while Matthew might have been gentle and sweet, as well as short and slight, he was not an "angel." An Associated Press reporter came up with an interesting, and disturbing story about Matthew Shepard, something that happened two months before his death. Reportedly, Shepard had gotten drunk in a bar near Yellowstone National Park and made a pass at at straight bartender. According to the story, "The bartender, Cris Hoogerhyde, said he knocked Shepard unconscious for a couple minutes with the second of two punches.

'He wouldn't leave me alone,' said Hoogerhyde, who added he apologized to Shepard once he regained consciousness. 'He was just looking for someone to swing with. He seemed kind of naive.' Shepard reported the incident as a "rape," but later recanted, claiming that he couldn't remember anything."

I bring this up not to say that short, slight, sweet Matthew Shepard was a monstrous sexual predator deserving of his fate, but simply because the above story is so incongrous with the angelic portrait of Matthew Shepard that we have been given of him.

The real issue is that Matthew Shepard was not an angel, and never was. No man is. While some people might be disturbed at any attempt to make Matthew Shepard less than cherubic, I am more disturbed by attempts to deny him his humanity, and specifically, to deny him two qualities that come across in the AP story: sexuality and aggression. No man is an angel. In fact, Matthew Shepard, like ALL men, was much closer to the terrestial beings of dogs, lions, and gorillas than celestial seraphim.

It is pretty much an accepted fact of anthropology, psychology, and sociology that men are endowed by nature with two qualities: sexuality and aggression. In other words, all men are horny, aggressive pigs. Men are fully capable of being more than that, even nobly and heroically more. But any man who denies that about himself and other men is, in my humble opinion, a liar.

The tragic thing is, as I have often seen with young gay feminist-sensitive men is that they often go out of their way to deny, not their sexuality, but that they have any hostile, aggressive instincts.

It also reported that Matthew Shepard had been estranged from his father over the issue of his sexual identity. Thus he had something in common with most homophobic punks, who are also estranged from their fathers. Without a father's support, Matthew might have-and yes, this is conjecture-might have shied away from developing his naturally masculine aggressive nature, while most punks overdevelop it in order to compensate for the lack of support they have from their fathers. That Matthew had to get drunk in order to be a little bit sexually aggressive is telling in this regard, as is the fact that he couldn't remember anything afterwards. This is big shortcoming of feminism: not acknowledging and honoring aggression in men, but rather insisting that men feel ashamed of it. It doesn't thus go away, but rather expresses itself in a socially destructive manner.

That's why, with stories like this, especially with the prolonged intimacy of the violence-as opposed to say merely shooting someone you hardly knew-I wonder if there was more going on here than simply he's gay and they hated him for that. I can certainly recall my early years in college pursuing "straight" guys whom I both envied and lusted after. My tactics were less overt and more passive-aggressive than what Matthew Shepard reportedly did in the AP story, but I can now clearly see that my behavior was driven by as much anger (I envied their good looks and popularity) as by lust. But at the same time, I was pathetically inept when it came to asserting myself and being the least bit honest about my anger. I can't help but speculate over how much of his unexpressed rage Matthew the "gentle soul" had coming back at him through other men.

My feeling is that ultimately there was a little bit of Henderson and Mckinney in Matthew Shepard, and that there is little bit of Matthew Shepard in Henderson and Mckinney. Henderson and Mckinney, if they were to ever speak openly and honestly about their deepest feelings, which will never happen, [or so I thought back in 1998 when I wrote this. Read my post-script below]I think the both of them would have a few things to say that yes, they have gay feelings, and they can't stand it because they feel so vulnerable and powerless in this world, and they wanted to punish Matthew Shepard because they saw their worst fears about themselves in him. He was small, he was weak, he was trusting, he wanted to have sex with men. (They probably wanted to punish him as well for being a cosmopolitan gownie rather than a provincial townie, thus entitled to some of the good things in life they would never have. The class envy factor in gay bashing is worth an analysis in and of itself).

This is all speculation on my part, but at this point I would rather trust my gut instincts rather than victim self-righteousness coming from any corner. What happened to Matthew Shepard is without a doubt, cruelly wrong, and I hope to see his assailants thoroughly punished. Ideally, their punishment should force an awareness upon them of the depth of evil in their actions. But we as a community should be cautious about overplaying ourselves as "victims" in order to achieve our civil rights. Matthew Shepard was indeed a victim, but his death, in my opinion, is not just about homophobia, but our current generation of men, gay and straight, who lack healthy, integrated role models to fully be men.


I really thought when I wrote this that what in my gut I believed to be true would never come out. Then reported that during a pre-trial news conference, Aaron Mckinney's lawyer, Jason Tangeman, "said McKinney, 22, was confused by three homosexual encounters that occurred when he was 7, 15, and 20. In one case, McKinney was forced into an oral sex act with a neighborhood bully."

Of course, there is a difference between voluntary and involuntary participation in sexual activity. This distinction is important. A deep-seated rage against gay men resulting from homosexual rape is one thing, but it is not unreasonable to assume that the Mckinney's "homosexual encounters" at 15 and 20 were voluntary. So, thus, in brutalizing Matthew Shepard he really was brutalizing himself. But this doesn't justify or neutralize his actions in terms of any "gay panic" defense, since, whatever the reasons, assault is assault.