Is ‘The Laramie Project’ a Convenient Untruth?

A new book about the Matthew Shepard murder challenges the theater community to reevaluate a cherished play.

(Originally published August 11, 2014)

On October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard was viciously beaten and left tied to a fence unconscious on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. He died six days later.

Beginning November 1998, a group of theater artists in New York City, seeking to tell the story of Matthew’s murder, spent a year and a half traveling to Laramie, conducting and transcribing interviews with more than 200 members of the University of Wyoming and Laramie communities, and creating from those documentary texts a two-act play by Moisés Kaufman and members of Tectonic Theater Project called The Laramie Project.

'The Book of Matt' cover & author Stephen Jimenez.
‘The Book of Matt’ cover & author Stephen Jimenez.

Beginning in 2000, a seasoned investigative journalist and television producer named Stephen Jimenez spent thirteen years seeking to learn the real circumstances that led to Matthew’s death. He interviewed more than 100 people with first-hand knowledge, in Laramie, Denver, and elsewhere, and examined numerous public records and media archives. He tells the results of his extensive research in The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard (due out in paperback September 16, 2014).

The Book of Matt and The Laramie Project do not jibe. They tell completely different stories. On substantial and significant points of fact, The Book of Matt contradicts The Laramie Project. And I believe this is a disconnect that the theater community needs to acknowledge and learn from.

In fall 2013 The Laramie Project was produced in Washington, DC, by Ford’s Theatre as part of its prestigious Lincoln Legacy Project, “a multi-year effort to create dialogue in our nation’s capital around the issues of tolerance, equality and acceptance.” Concurrently Ford’s Theatre devoted an entire floor of its museum to an exhibition titled “Not Alone: The Power of Response,” featuring letters written to Matthew Shepard’s parents in the aftermath of his murder, as well as a wall-length photograph of the probable scene of the crime, the remote fence to which Matthew was tied. During the federal shutdown, which temporarily closed Ford’s Theatre, I wrote an admiring column about the show as performed at a nearby church. Everything about the production and the exhibition was premised on the assumption that The Laramie Project was a docudrama worthy of this distinguished theater’s underwriting and endorsement. But what if The Laramie Project contains untruths? What if The Book of Matt gets the facts about Matthew’s murder right and the play got them wrong? Were Ford’s Theatre and I unwittingly complicit in delivering disinformation?

I would argue: no. And here’s why.

Countless audience members (like me) have been, and will continue to be, deeply moved by The Laramie Project. Thousands of theater artists have collaborated to breathe life into it onstage, and others in the future will continue to do so. This is as it should be; as theater The Laramie Project is powerful. But if The Book of Matt is to be believed, The Laramie Project cannot be. The Laramie Project beautifully tells a truth (the way well-wrought myths and oft-told legends and eloquent metaphors do). But considering all that Stephen Jimenez’s reporting has now brought to light, The Laramie Project can no longer be said to factually tell the truth of what led up to Matthew Shepard’s murder.

If The Book of Matt is to be believed (and I do, as I will explain), Matthew’s tragedy began long before the night he was killed. As a kid he sensed he was different. He was slight of stature and his puberty was not forthcoming, so his parents put him on hormone shots—the beginning of what became a life-long drug dependency. He was sexually molested as a child by a male relative, and he was said to have been gang-raped as an adolescent—traumatic events with long-term psychic wounds that often go unhealed. His body frequently evidenced bruises, scratches, cuts. He self-medicated with drugs, both prescription and street. For the last years of his life he was using and dealing methamphetamine. He was pimped for sex. He was HIV positive. The money he spent lavishly—as on frequent limo rides to the gay drug scene in Denver and Fort Collins—he obtained from his parents, from selling drugs, and from selling his body to desirous older men. Matthew was a kid for whom “It gets better” never happened; it only ever got worse. Moreover, before that fateful night Matthew knew one of his assailants, Aaron McKinney. He and Matthew moved in the same intersecting circles of illicit drugs and gay male prostitution in Laramie and Denver. Then twenty-one, Aaron had been ragingly high on a crystal meth bender for a full week.

What precipitated the murder was a brutal meth-fueled assault over a drug deal gone wrong. Though the victim was a young gay man, it was not a gay hate crime. Aaron McKinney was bisexual. Matthew and Aaron were sometimes pimped by the same older man. On several occasions Matthew and Aaron had had consensual sex.

I’ll pause a moment here, because that paragraph has a lot to process. For anyone unfamiliar with The Book of Matt, that précis will sound like heresy. It flies in the face of what the media (gay and otherwise) have been telling us for years (a reporting error whose origin The Book of Matt tracks down). Worse, it seems to besmirch the memory of a beloved martyr (it doesn’t at all; it makes Matthew’s life story even more important to us, as I will explain).

Imagine for a moment Elizabethan England, during the years Shakespeare’s chronicle plays were staged at the Globe. Suppose that, for any one of those scripts, there had been an investigative reporter who could travel back in time, get access to a plentitude of primary sources and interview subjects, and return with a comprehensively researched manuscript that refuted what Shakespeare wrote. (This hypothetical isn’t completely far-fetched; Shakespeare tended to bend facts in order to flatter his audience’s devotion to the monarchy—and that’s when pieces of the historical record were known to him. Sometimes he just made stuff up.) Would such an intrepid reporter’s detective work lessen the worth of Shakespeare’s dramatic composition, its power to play on stage and move and engage us? No, not a whit. As everyone now accepts, there are implied air quotes whenever Shakespeare’s “history” plays are performed. Nobody mistakes them for docudrama.

I submit that the theater world now needs to reframe The Laramie Project in precisely the same way: Continue to produce and perform and appreciate it, but as an artful passion play, a resonant and multi-voiced portrayal of a community’s struggle to come to terms with its collective conscience—not as a historically accurate depiction of a crime. And I would urge Tectonic Theater Project to join in this reframing by no longer claiming that The Laramie Project accurately renders the real reason Matthew was murdered. (In January I emailed Moisés Kaufman, the artistic director of Tectonic, telling him I would be writing an essay about questions raised by The Book of Matt and requesting an interview. He has not responded.)

In fairness, at the time members of Tectonic Theater Project initially visited Laramie, the media had already broadcast the “gay hate crime” narrative around the world. So no wonder that was the understanding shared by all the students and townspeople quoted in The Laramie Project script. What else could they have known? Nothing of Stephen Jimenez’s investigative reporting had yet appeared.

Far more problematic is The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, a play by Moisés Kaufman, Leigh Fondakowski, Greg Pierotti, Andy Paris, and Stephen Belber, based on interviews the authors conducted in September 2008. The play quotes Laramie resident Jim Osborne, a friend of Matthew’s:

After the media storm died down here in Laramie…there were a lot of folks who simply didn’t want to talk about Matthew Shepard anymore. They were tired of their community and their lives being the nightly news. They were tired of feeling the stigma of having such a heinous crime occur in our community.

The shared pain of that stigma can be heard throughout Ten Years Later. But by the time its authors returned to Laramie, portions of Jimenez’s reporting were already known to many Laramie residents. In 2004 ABC News 20/20 aired “The Matthew Shepard Story: Secrets of a Murder,” which Jimenez coproduced with Glenn Silber. These citizens naturally welcomed what this network news report said, because it meant the shame they had been living with for a decade was unwarranted. Matthew’s horrific murder had not been motivated by gay hate.

But that’s not the story Ten Years Later tells. Instead the play is an argument against that 20/20 broadcast. Constantly the script challenges any belief based on it, for instance in this exchange with Deb Thomsen, the editor of the local Laramie newspaper who herself reported on the murder case:

DEB THOMSEN. You know, we’re trying to put this behind us, and keep going. I would have to say that most people in the community, they’re aware of what’s happened here, but they are really moving on from this. You have brutality and you deal with it,  and you move on.


DEB THOMSEN. I do think that it brought forth a different awareness…and I hate to speak on behalf of the community, but I don’t believe that the catalyst was homosexuality.

MOISÉS KAUFMAN. What do you mean?

DEB THOMSEN. I really believe they [the killers] wanted money. And Matthew didn’t have what they thought and it just escalated to an anger that was totally out of control. There was so much speculation about drug use. I just don’t think it was about his sexuality.

MOISÉS KAUFMAN. (Surprised.) So you don’t think it was a hate crime?

Kaufman’s leading/shaming question gets THOMSEN back on message for his play’s purposes:

DEB THOMSEN. I think everything is a hate crime. You have to have some kind of hatred in you to do that to another human being.

Given what was knowable and known at the time from Jimenez’s 20/20 broadcast, Ten Years Later’s persistent insistence on Matthew’s murder as a gay hate crime reads like a concerted disparagement of the Laramie citizenry, and a bald-faced protection of the royalty-generating franchise that Kaufman and Tectonic had in The Laramie Project. In my view The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later is an inferior dramatic work: self-serving,  deceptive, and unworthy of being staged any more.

The Laramie Project does not need to be propped up and sullied by Ten Years Later. Rereading The Laramie Project after having read The Book of Matt, I found it just as artful as before, and I saw more clearly that the people portrayed in the play were simply and honestly speaking their emotional truth from what they believed to be true—so their words and feelings still have deep resonance and rich meaning. (One exception is the character of Doc the limo driver, who appears to have taken many people for a ride, including Tectonic company members, and I will say more about his special case in a moment.) What impressed me most upon rereading The Laramie Project was that the story it tells has power and cultural relevance irrespective of its factual accuracy, in exactly the way great theater has always offered audiences myths they need and want to live by. That’s one way we know who we are as humans, and a big reason our species makes art.

But how did “gay hate crime” get attached to news of Matthew’s murder in the first place? The Book of Matt traces the origin of that misinterpretation to two independent and unrelated sources. One was a pair of gay friends of Matthew’s who leapt on their own to the conclusion that the murder was an anti-gay hate crime and blurted their assumption to a local gay reporter they knew and local gay organizations. The anti-gay attack angle made the story huge, the Associated Press and other national media ran with it, news crews descended on Laramie, and Matthew’s murder made headlines everywhere. The two friends, however, had had no first-hand knowledge of the crime or the police investigation. They simply spoke from their heart, albeit off the top of their head.

The other source was Aaron McKinney, who lived with his teenage girlfriend and their child. Aaron was well known for his short temper and violent aggression, even when not high on meth, and he was surely feared by Russell Henderson, the other young man convicted of killing Matthew. Russell was like a subordinate sidekick to the domineering Aaron, and as such Russell became a passive participant in the crime—he was so intimidated by Aaron that he went along, did as he was told, and kept quiet about it. Both Aaron and Russell were comfortable socializing with lesbian women and gay men.  (In one of several odd twists Jimenez reports, Aaron’s girlfriend’s mother was in a lesbian relationship at the time, as was Russell’s girlfriend’s mother.) The “gay panic defense”—the story that Aaron went ballistic because that night in a bar Matthew came on to him and later grabbed his crotch—was a complete fabrication, fed by Aaron’s and his girlfriend’s shared interest in portraying him as heterosexual, and by Aaron’s hope it would mitigate his sentence. The gay panic narrative strained credulity even at the time. At worst an unwanted crotch grab might get your lights punched out if you’re dumb enough to try it on someone who’s brawny and you’re scrawny. But savagely murdered? As Jimenez explains, the scenario makes no sense because that’s not at all what happened.

Does the fact that Matthew’s murder was not a gay hate crime diminish the validity of the hate crime legislation it prompted? Of course not. That law, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr,. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, was long overdue. Similarly, does the fact that Matthew’s murder was not a gay hate crime invalidate the play it prompted? No, absolutely not—because the world of the play arose during a period when gay hate crimes were invisible, and when a shared belief that Matthew’s murder was one of them served to enlighten and uplift the conscience of a nation. Even though Matthew’s murder was not a gay hate crime, it’s not as if there were no others so society was off the hook and compunction was uncalled for. As a dramatic synecdoche for necessary truth, therefore, The Laramie Project is not an erroneous fiction. Shaping moral meaning from myth, legend, and metaphor is what theater has done for ages. The Laramie Project belongs to that noble canon.

The Book of Matt makes only one reference to The Laramie Project, where Jimenez interviews two sources, Shannon Shingleton and Jenny Malmskog, who attended drug parties that were also attended by Aaron and Matthew (pp. 165–166; brackets in the original):

Not long after Matthew’s murder, Shingleton, and Malmskog were interviewed extensively by members of New York’s Tectonic Theater Project, creators of the docudrama The Laramie Project. Both Shingleton and Malmskog were later listed in the on-screen credits of HBO’s adaptation of the play.

“We talked to those guys for hours,” Malmskog recalled.

“I told people [from the Tectonic] everything I knew,” Shingleton added, including what he knew firsthand of Aaron’s and Matthew’s involvement with crystal meth.

Shingleton said he was “angry at how fake [The Laramie Project] is” and he couldn’t understand why its makers had betrayed the truth to make a political statement.

The accusation that Kaufman and Tectonic “betrayed the truth” is harsh. But as a theatrical matter, whether they left out these sources’ information to suit a political agenda is moot. At the time the play premiered in February 2000, mention of Matthew’s immersion in drugs would have seemed a red-herring.

Having carefully compared the text of The Laramie Project against The Book of Matt, I found the most striking discrepancy to be the play’s portrayal of Doc O’Connor. The script describes him as “Limousine driver and local entrepreneur, in his fifties.” In performance the character comes off as a kindly, avuncular fellow who offers Matthew and his friends lifts in his limo and is unusually well informed about the gay scene. Doc says in one of his early speeches:

Let me tell you something else here. There’s more gay people in Wyoming than meets the eye. I know, I know for a fact. They’re not particularly, ah, the whattayou call them, the queens, the gay people, queens, you know, runaround faggot-type people. No, they’re the ones that throw bails of hay, jump on horses, brand ’em, and kick ass, you see what I’m saying? As I always say, Don’t fuck with a Wyoming queer, ’cause they will kick you in your fucking ass, but that’s not the point of what I’m trying to say. ’Cause I know a lot of gay people in Wyoming, I know a lot of people period. I’ve been lived up here some forty-odd years, you see what I’m saying?

In real life, as Jimenez learned firsthand, Doc O’Connor is a piece of work and quite the con artist. Apparently he snowed Tectonic into believing him blameless, but according to named sources in The Book of Matt, Doc O’Connor once ran a house of female prostitution, regularly transported Matthew and other young people to Denver for drugs, and was sometimes Matthew’s and Aaron’s pimp. O’Connor must have been pleased that the creators of The Laramie Project have made of his dubious profile such a benign portrait. But does the cleaned-up character of Doc work dramatically in the play? Yes, no question. The Doc character fits perfectly among the dramatis personae because he colorfully locates and contextualizes the story. Plus, it’s a great part for an actor.

At first I regarded publication of The Book of Matt with complete skepticism based on the dismissive and discrediting reports about it I read in the gay press. I had decided I would not bother with it. Then one day my hair stylist started telling me about the book. He and his coworkers were reading it, avidly. He told me bits of what they’d learned. I was intrigued. He told me I must read it.

OK, I thought, I will. But I will not pay money that would go to the publisher of something that could turn out to be scurrilous; instead I will borrow the book from a library. So that is what I did.

I found reading The Book of Matt absolutely absorbing, compelling, and persuasive—so much so that as soon as I finished, I purchased my own copy and began rereading it and marking passages with sticky tabs. I tracked other published commentary and noted that in contrast to the derisive stuff I’d read, a number of writers for reputable journals had taken The Book of Matt very seriously (for instance The NationThe Advocate, and Lambda Literary). I also contacted the author and conducted several in-depth interviews.

Just as disclosures in The Book of Matt challenge the theater community to reframe its understanding of The Laramie Project, so too they challenge us as a caring society to revise our understanding of the meaning of Matthew Shepard’s life.

Ignoring the full tragedy of Matthew’s story—keeping him the poster boy of gay hate crime though that’s not what happened—has been the agenda of many gay-movement leaders and custodians of Matthew’s legacy ever since Stephen Jimenez’s reportage first appeared. I fail to see what higher purpose this determined blinkeredness serves. On the contrary, I believe that ignoring the tragedies that preceded Matthew’s murder will only serve to ensure that other youth who are sexually violated, ensnared by drugs, and sold for sex will remain invisible and lost.

Informed attention must be paid. Really reckoning with Matthew’s life story, including its dark sides, could open society’s eyes to see the similarly broken lives of other young people. And maybe help save them. And that would be Matthew’s honest legacy.


[Editor’s note: We welcome your comments in The Comment Box below.]


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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


  1. Kudos for taking a bold and sometimes unpopular stance. It is good to see the truth shine through. Hopefully it continues in a way that does not diminish that good things that have occurred in Matthew’s name.

    The speed with which the contrived story of a hate crime grew is indicative of a state of fear that had been held barely below the surface for so many. That was tragic to watch and demanded our best efforts to address.

    It is hurtful to know a few in the law enforcement realm latched onto errors and misstatements in attempts to ride them for their own glory. Those false tales struck fear in many people and cast a pale over decent, honest folks in a State where a handshake means more than a contract.

    One of the most honorable moments in all of this was when the students dressed as angels quietly marched to the courthouse, sheets for wings, and blocked the view of hate filled idiots that wished to further their own agenda. I remember being so proud to sit close with my K-9 partner and protect those students, should things go wrong.

    For my part I can confirm what Stephen wrote to be well researched and fair in it’s presentation, at least where I had first hand involvement. It is an effort he, and we, can be proud of.

  2. “I believe that ignoring the tragedies that preceded Matthew’s murder will only serve to ensure that other youth who are sexually violated, ensnared by drugs, and sold for sex will remain invisible and lost.”

    I hope that this message gets past the moneyed gatekeepers of the community, who are often heavily involved in
    maintaining this systematic oppression of gay youths

  3. The problem is that McKinney and Henderson have admitted that they targeted Shepard because he was gay. No, not because of a gay panic defense. They admitted that they targeted Shepard specifically because of his sexuality. That isn’t to say that other factors weren’t involved, but to claim that it wasn’t a hate crime is not justified.

  4. A deeply thought provoking piece. While some may view the revaluation of Matthew Shepard’s death as controversial, I for one believe the actual circumstances of his death have even more profound implications for the gay community. While gay hate crimes are indisputably horrific, is it not drug use and sexual assault that are the true catastrophes in gay America? Matthew Shepard’s life was almost as tragic as his death, and he was a victim long before he was murdered. Meth and rape are more destructive than any homophobe’s fists, and if anything, this piece makes Matthew Shepard more of a martyr in my mind, and spurs me towards greater action.

  5. “I’ll pause a moment here, because that paragraph has a lot to process.”

    Why don’t you save yourself the time and ask yourself whether you really need to “process” “information” based on anonymous sources.

    If you want to know why Matthew died, ask his killers. They think it was a hate crime…

    • Hating an individual over a drug deal is not the same as hating a whole class of individuals.
      Some of us insist on thinking beyond what the orthodoxy says.

      • You’re still missing the point: McKinney and Henderson both say that they killed Shepard over his sexuality. There may be other aspects to the crime, but to pretend that it had nothing to do with Shepard being gay is to ignore reality.

  6. Quick disclosure: I have not read The Book of Matt nor have I seen the Laramie Project or Laramie Project 10 Years Later. It seemed all too sad for me; I saw “Angels in America” in preview 20 years ago and it just broke my heart, having lost so many friends.

    Wow — on its face, this is quite remarkable. Without exception, all witnesses and all authors have agendas that are their own and thus their stories are limited to versions of the truth. Per this column, The Book of Matt makes me ask, Is Judy Shepard a heroine or a monster?


    Nonetheless, based on this column’s recounting of The Book of Matt, I fail to see how the murder of Matthew Shepard is not a hate crime. A drug deal gone bad and a hate crime are not mutually exclusive.

    While events prior to the night of the murder have impact on the murder, they do not change how the events occurred that night.

    The fact that Aaron McKinney claimed a “gay panic” defense in of itself is a hate crime. Not only did he kill Shepard, he blamed Shepard as the instigator of the events leading to the murder. What difference does it matter whether McKinney and Shepard had had consensual sex in the past? That night McKinney either killed Shepard as a gay-bashing, or killed him in a drug deal gone bad and blame Shepard’s homosexuality as the inducement. Or both, seems most likely. Puppy follower Russell Henderson either helped kill Shepard as part of a gay-bashing or he too blamed Shepard’s homosexuality as the reason for the killing. Or both.

    That McKinney and Henderson knew and were closely related to lesbian parents does not mean that they did not also, at the very least, blame Shepard’s homosexuality as the reason for the killing.

    As indicated in this column, The Book of Matt makes it clear the killing was more complex than an out-and-out gay bashing, but that does not change that the killing was indeed a hate crime.

  7. Media Matters never did any actual reporting on Matthew Shepard’s murder. Although they published no less than 9 articles on my book, their so-called debunking is a total fraud. They never offered a shred of evidence to refute my findings.

    Those of you who continue to say that Russell Henderson stated an anti-gay motive are misinformed and mistaken. I invite you to produce one actual court document or police report to prove that allegation — not rumor or hearsay, but an actual verifiable statement. Since Media Matters claims to be an expert on the case, ask them to produce that evidence. It doesn’t exist.

    During the entire yearlong case, Henderson made only 3 statements: he spoke to police during a short interview at the time of his arrest, but refused to continue talking without an attorney present; he spoke in court on the day he was sentenced to two life terms, after he’d already agreed to a last-minute plea bargain under threat of the death penalty; and he gave police a voluntary recorded statement after his conviction. In none of these statements did Henderson ever express anti-gay animus of any kind.

    The fact that Russell Henderson never had a trial with the opportunity to tell his side of the story is one of the troubling legacies of this case. If Matthew were still alive, he would be appalled by that injustice. In the LGBT community, we should all be concerned about justice.

    I have no problem with criticism of my book — I welcome it. But guys, at least form an opinion based on your own reading, not on what a bunch of spin-meisters like Media Matters tells you. Don’t take my word for it. Just go to the library and read the book for free like John Stoltenberg did. He had the same reservations and concerns some of you do.

    As for the claim that my sources are anonymous, there is a list of 112 named sources in the book. And there are a number of new named sources in the new Afterword I wrote for the paperback, which comes out on SEPT. 16th

    Truth matters to our community. Let’s stop slinging mud at each other!

    • Your response to commenters greatly undermines your creditability.

      You simply cannot have it both ways regarding Russell Henderson. You wrote: “The fact that Russell Henderson never had a trial with the opportunity to tell his side of the story is one of the troubling legacies of this case.” as if he was denied his constitutional rights to a trial by jury — the FACT is that he pled guilty before trial circumventing a trial by his own actions.

      Per Stoltenberg’s Essay, you portray Henderson as a weak-willed and scared of McKinney — yet he follows McKinney in McKinney’s deeds and instructions. McKinney did claim the murder was due to Shepard’s homosexuality. Whether McKinney’s claim is false or not, the fact remains he made the claim, indicting himself in a hate crime. Henderson acted as an accessory in the murder and that makes an accessory to the hate crime too.

      Fine, your investigation leads to new information and different views of previous information. That other mitigating factors have significant relevance on the events leading up to the murder, have no bearing on the plain fact Matthew Shepard was murdered by McKinney and Henderson, and that McKinney cited Shepard’s homosexuality as the cause of his actions. And nothing changes the fact that Henderson followed McKinney in all of McKinney’s motives in murdering Shepard.

      That you apparently believe blaming an individual’s homosexuality as an excuse for committing murder in a drug deal gone bad is not a hate crime speaks to your motives and your inability to understand the hate used against gay men.

      I suppose you believe that Dan White, in addition to committing revenge murders of George Moscone and Harvey Milk was not also an anti-gay hate crime against Milk? Intertwined motives do not erase or render any one motive as less significant.

  8. Jimenez was behind the 20/20 whitewash, the entire thrust of which was to defuse the national revulsion and anger over what had happened, and short-circuit any discussions about what to do about the violence routinely experienced by gay people, by concocting their own convenient untruth that boiled down to Shepard basically having brought it upon himself so nothing to see here, move along.

    Some context here is that the murder coincided with a major push by the religious right groups to defeat attempts to enact bias crime laws protecting gay people with a big money “Change Is Possible” “We Questioned Homosexuality” and such like advertising campaigns…the implication being that gay people can stop being gay whenever they want to and if they don’t like the things that happen to them because of their lifestyle then they can just stop being gay. In other words, we’re to blame for our own persecution. Then the news of Shepard’s brutal murder hit the national headlines and that pretty much threw that campaign off the rails. But not the “you people bring it on yourselves” mindset behind it.

    A good alternative resource on the events in Laramie is “Losing Matt Shepard” by Beth Loffreda. She lives and teaches in Laramie and she talked to many of the firsthand witnesses to the events there, including detective Rob DeBree who says in the book that he had never seen a crime scene so perfectly laid out, with everything right there in front of him, as if he was being given each little bit of evidence right there “like a case of God giving it to us”. DeBree later interviews and arrests McKinney, who immediately, =Immediately=, brings Shepard’s homosexuality into it, and how it angered him that Shepard was hitting on it, into it. DeBree, an experienced policeman, insists the crime in no way fits the pattern of a robbery or a meth binge attack.

    There is nothing hidden anywhere in this case, beyond the motivations of the people who want it to be about something other than homophobia, and that only barely. Any confusion as to the facts of the case has been deliberately sown by people with their own reasons for doing that. I have no idea what Jimenez actual interests here are. But his work is to journalism as so many other crappy bar stool conspiracy theories are. We have all seen lately how automatically that reflex to blame the victim springs into action in certain quarters when it comes to the violent death of young black males. It’s at work here too. The hated other always bring it upon themselves.

    • Straw men, conspiracy theorizing, trials of intent and personal attacks… The rhetorical devices used to attack Jimenez’s research end up validating it as they serve neither truth, nor justice – and Shepard’s memory.

  9. Thanks to everyone who has read and thought about my essay and the issues it raises.

    I knew before I began writing it that concerted efforts had been made to refute and denounce The Book of Matt in order, it would seem, to scare people away from reading it. The reason I knew was because those efforts had worked on me.

    My purpose in writing this essay was not, however, to refute those refutations or denounce those denunciations but rather to speak my truth—that reading the book changed and opened my mind. Inspired by it, I hoped to frame a new conversation that I believe needs to be had in two larger communities that I belong to: the one that cares about theater and the one that cares about rescuing young people from sexual abuse, prostitution, and drugs. (Some of those young people identify as LGBTQ. In a context of compassion and care, that of course matters—but it ought not be the criterion for our concern.)

    Would I have come to see the point and importance of having these conversations had I not come to see the life of Matthew Shepard through the lens I found in Stephen Jimenez’s book? I honestly doubt it.

    There is a mythology that has grown up around Matthew Shepard that has prompted some good theater and served some good social purposes; I do not dispute that. At the same time, I am deeply concerned that clinging to that mythology to the exclusion of another, more complex view of Matthew Shepard’s life not only makes for bad theater but serves a bad social purpose: to keep a lot of hurt kids from mattering to us.

    I know that there are extraordinary communities of concern, social-service agencies, and nonprofits that separately address how kids’ lives are damaged by sexual abuse, prostitution and drugs. But what struck me when I read The Book of Matt was how these three life crises all converged and overlapped in Matthew, and how sad that made me for his sake. Just…horribly, terribly sad.

    And then as I thought more and more about the Matthew that The Book of Matt had led me to see, I began to see how these ostensibly differentiated crises can intersect such that a kid’s life can become a tragedy that is more enormous than the sum of its devastating parts.

    And it was then I began to see how much Matthew’s life has yet to teach us.

    Will others who read The Book of Matt have identical epiphanies? Of course not; everyone who reads it will read it differently; maybe some after reading it will continue to quarrel with it. But I predict that rejection of the book out of hand will become less and less supportable and defensible as a principled position the more people read it for themselves.

  10. “I knew before I began writing it that concerted efforts had been made to refute and denounce The Book of Matt in order, it would seem, to scare people away from reading it.”

    I see. That it’s being denounced because it’s complete garbage and people are outraged at this man’s gratuitous smearing of that poor kid’s memory didn’t occur to you then did it? Well…give it some thought.

    In a week full of grotesque images speaking to the status of minorities in this country, that crack Jimenez made here the other day invoking Shepard’s name for some supposed injustice Henderson allegedly suffered really took the cake. If Matthew Shepard were still alive today then Henderson wouldn’t have needed a trail in the first place. But never mind that. If Matthew Shepard were still alive today I think he’d be appalled at being called a prostitute. If Matthew Shepard were still alive today I think he’d be appalled at being called a meth head. If Matthew Shepard were still alive today I think he’d be appalled by his mother and father having to endure a torrent of sewage aimed at their dead son that not even Fred Phelps could have risen to. But then if Matthew Shepard were still alive Jimenez would have to find another grave to stand on for his time in the spotlight and who knows what other parents and loved ones would be suffering for it now.

  11. A friend just sent me this link to a review by a law professor that also reads important lessons in Stephen Jimenez’s book: “The Book of Matt and What It Can Tell Us About the Zimmerman/Martin Case”

    Had I known of this review, I would have included a reference to it in my essay where I mention writers for reputable publications that have taken the book seriously.

    The author, Marci A. Hamilton, is chair of public Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and an advocate on behalf of abused children.

  12. It is sad to see how emotion distorts perception and makes people see what they want to see. Jimenez’ book raises some serious questions about the “gay panic” defense. In fact, Aaron himself denied it. Matthew Shepard does not deserve sainthood; he does, however, deserve the truth.

    The Laramie Project is moving, as a piece of writing. But there is an underlying agenda which verges on the didactic and makes the play less effective.

    Every human action stems from a variety of motives. But personal attacks on people who have different points of view do not lead to positive solutions.

    John Stoltenberg’s article is a thoughtful and important contribution to the discussion.

  13. This is a review of The Book of Matt by another writer for a reputable publication who takes its investigative reporting seriously: “When the Legend Becomes the Truth,” from the Los Angeles Review of Books.

    This review also mentions Flint Waters, whose comment is the first in this thread and who was the Laramie police officer who arrested Russell Henderson.


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