I have a review of The Book of Matt, a reported investigation into the murder of Matthew Shepard and the legend that has grown in its aftermath, over at The New Inquiry today. Please check it out. I imagine it’ll provoke a fight, which I look forward to. My basic stance is simple.
1. Stephen Jimenez’s book, while too ready to accept a narrative contrary to the conventional wisdom, to the detriment of his argument, substantially undermines the conventional story of Matthew Shepard.
2. The urge to turn Matthew Shepard into an impossibly pure figure ultimately dishonors him and his real complex humanity, and contributes to an impossible standard that cannot be met by actually existing gay human beings. Blamelessness is not a necessary precondition of the right to not be killed. We do oppressed groups no favors when we attempt to make them nonthreatening or impossibly pure.
3. This will to make Shepard a martyr is part of a broad change in the philosophy of the gay rights movement of the past several decades, which has retreated from its traditional advocacy for the equal legitimacy of all sexual and gender identities to the assertion that gay people are just like straight people, in a way that ultimately cuts against the broader movement to equally protect and value all human beings across difference. “Respect all forms of human difference” is a liberal argument. “Everybody’s the same” is a reactionary one.
If there was a time when robbing Shepard of his life’s complexity was a necessary part of the political effort to defend people like him, that time has passed. The gay rights movement is ascendant, and those within it should use that visibility and power to advocate for the right to be different, not merely for the right to be gay. Truly including all gay men and women in the full protection of civil society has to involve abandoning the urge to treat them as sexless and unthreatening saints, as they are so often portrayed as on TV. As I said in the review: suppose the most cynical and critical portrayal of Shepard were true. Would we really lose our responsibility to prosecute his killers, mourn his death, and defend others like him? And if so, how could you possibly call your movement an effort for social justice?