The Matthew Shepard story was pretty much “that moment” in history for me, at least until 9/11. When it happened, I was a gay man in college having only come out to my parents four years before. Events like the death of JFK or Martin Luther King certainly affect us because they are a part of this country’s history, but when history is made during our lifetime it becomes a different kind of resonation.
I admit that prior to reading this book, to me, the Matthew Shepard murder was a hate crime and it made Matthew into a martyr or symbol for the struggle that homosexuals have endured everywhere and the hate we face. Stephen Jimenez, the author, thought the same thing until he visited Laramie years later intending to write a story about the case. The prosecuting attorney advised Jimenez to take a deeper look. Court documents and evidence had just become available and Jimenez found an odd and anonymous letter among the documents addressed to the attorney himself. This prompted Jimenez to take the story in a different direction.
He discovered Matthew was a casual drug user, particularly a meth user and seller. It is already well-known that Matthew’s killers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, were drug users. Jimenez soon exposes an odd relationship that ties these three men together, suggesting that Matthew’s murder was not what the media made it out to be. So why was this also avoided during the trial?
Through numerous interviews of friends, lovers, and acquaintances of Matthew, Jimenez paints a pretty solid picture of the “real” Matthew Shepard and directly shows how the media turned this story into something completely different, the anti-gay hate crime it is known as today. Many have ridiculed this book, even before reading it, and I would urge those people to do some research of their own. I like to keep an open mind about such things and cure my own ignorance, so I did just that. If a person or event came up in the book and I wanted to know more, I stopped to research it a bit more just as Jimenez did.
Jimenez cites all of his sources and interviewees. Some wanted to remain anonymous, mostly because of their own ties to the drug trade in Wyoming. He even tells you when they could be lying to him or hesitating to tell the real story. What is really interesting is when one person does reveal a small piece of the puzzle, and then another completely different person reveals that same thing or another piece that fits. One example of this is the possibility that Aaron and Matthew knew each other before that night and had sold/bought drugs from one another, or possibly even had sex together before. Aaron’s bisexuality is referenced again and again, but was also a subject the courts avoided.
Jimenez does not change the picture we have of Matthew already; he just makes it clearer. We still see Matthew as a sad, depressed, friendly, and frail boy who never knew a stranger. Matthew’s own mother admitted that he “self-medicated” so his drug use is not a new topic either. The sexual abuse that both Matthew and Aaron had experienced in their past was new to me though, as was the possibility the two men knew each other prior to that night. Jimenez also explains the part that Henderson played in the crime and how he was really only guilty of associating with the wrong people.
Jimenez also exposes how this case became an accelerant for Clinton’s hate crime bill which was before Congress at the time, and that’s probably why the two guilty men received such heavy sentencing. America was watching so the court had to set an example, despite crimes that were just as harsh that happened around the same time in Laramie and those guilty received lesser sentences. One of these crimes was the death of Henderson’s own mother which happened less than four months after Matthew was killed.
Do I accept Jimenez’s book as the new truth as to what happened that night? No. It doesn’t change the fact that what happened to Matthew was horrible and wrong. And it won’t change the sadness I felt from it. But I will admit he’s opened my eyes a bit wider to this story, and any book that can do that is worth reading. It’s proof that you should not always believe the media and you should definitely question everything!