When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
Director John Ford in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence
The Book of Matt by Stephen Jimenez is about the heinous and now-legendary murder of Matthew Shepard. It obliquely brings three people to mind: John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.
All three are legends apart, so maybe it is not surprising that legends have grown up about all three in various pairings, and even all together on at least one purported occasion. Whether or not Monroe had an affair with either or both of the Kennedys, whether Bobby was with her on the night of her death, whether evidence of those affairs was covered up or destroyed, is almost certainly never going to be incontrovertibly established. Some will say that some of it appears near certain while other of it is sordid and unsubstantiated conjecture. For the most part, we’ve reached a general consensus that none were saints, none were complete role models, but that we liked some of what they did, and we liked them for what they did, including inspiring us, and the rest is just shades of humanity. JFK helped prevent a nuclear war, Bobby Kennedy helped end the Vietnam War, and Marilyn was just Marilyn. If they didn’t live like saints, they died as complex and heartbreaking lessons.
Jimenez has investigated the Matthew Shepard murder for more than a decade. He concludes that this was not a vicious hate crime against a young gay man. Instead, it is a cautionary tale about the epidemic of methamphetamine. According to this report, Shepard was troubled, and was involved in the Laramie meth scene. The killer, who knew Shepard, was a meth head who had been up for a week, and was trying to get information from Shepard about a meth deal. He intended to coerce the information from Shepard, but out of his mind, simply beat Shepard mercilessly and insanely. The killer and his accomplice pled guilty, which kept details of the local meth market and the killer’s gay dealings with Shepard—trading meth for sex—secret.
The police investigation never involved a hate crime. The now-infamous imagining of Shepard being trussed up on a fence in a crucifix position never happened; he was found on the ground, hands tied behind his back. The anti-gay angle for the horrific event was soon added.
This might present a problem.
Jiminez has found himself in an odd position. He is accused of being anti-gay, though he is gay himself, in which case he is accused of being a “traitor” to a cause. He is accused of being a tool of the reactionary right wing, though he himself is far from being a right winger. What he is, he repeats, is a journalist who wants to do what he is supposed to do: find and tell the truth, as best as it ever can be found and told.
Matthew Shepard has become very important to the movement for gay rights. It is a powerful story: the young man who did nothing wrong, who only wanted to live a free and openly gay life, who had the misfortune of running into a black-hearted, hate-filled, intolerant stranger—the sort that fifteen years ago, and today, you can meet anywhere.
If it turns out that some or more than some of what Jimenez concludes is true, what happens to Matthew Shepard, the young man and the legend? In essence, Jimenez says that nothing happens. The issues remain the same, the good fight remains the good fight, but we will be fighting it armed with a little more truth about the story, convenient or not.
That sort of complication should be welcome, but it may not be, at least not everywhere. We like our stories simple, because so much of life is convoluted and mysterious. There are lines that are clear, but simple stories are mostly for children. Grownups have to work and stretch. This is a warts-and-all age, so we take our big characters as they come: flawed but still valuable. People work every day, their entire lives, on establishing equality—some of those people under the Matthew Shepard banner. That cause isn’t going away, and if we have to accept a little bit of historical adjustment, that’s the price we pay for having our eyes open.