Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine
Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, released in 2013, tells the story of the life and death of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man who was brutally beaten in a field outside of Laramie, Wyoming in October of 1998. He died a few days later at the hospital. LGBTQ activists (as well as decent people across the country) responded to Shepard’s death with horror and outrage. The Matthew Shepard Foundation, founded by Matthew’s parents, describes the murder as “one of the most notorious anti-gay hate crimes in American history.” (Incidentally, the crime was never ruled a hate crime in court.) Here, we examine the metronormativity evident in both the documentary as well as the discourses around Shepard’s death more broadly.
The clip opens with the challenges that Matt had while living in Denver: he suffered from depression and did not find necessary support. Aside from this brief mention, the film largely ignores that Matt also struggled outside of Wyoming. In describing Matt’s decision to move back to Wyoming, a journalist and old friend of Matt’s, for example, describes Wyoming as “lonesome” and conservative “both politically and socially.” Here, Wyoming is the problem. In the next scene, Matt’s mentors provide an alternative framing. They encouraged Matt to return to Laramie, suggesting that they knew it was the right place for him at the time. After the move, Matt told his former guidance counselor that he finally felt safe. On the day of his murder, he called an old teacher from high school and mentioned that his move to go to school Laramie was the greatest decision he’d made. “There was just a lot of stuff that was right about being in Laramie,” Matt’s former guidance counselor explained, “[h]ow could anybody know that it was
probably the most dangerous place he could be?” The film largely neglects Matt’s positive feelings about being in Laramie, and instead, presents the mentors’ advice as misguided. In fact, the film sandwiches the description of Laramie as a good place for Matt between characterizing Laramie as isolating and discussing Matt’s upcoming murder, complete with ominous background music. E. Cram, a Communication Studies scholar who writes about queer rurality, explains why it is important to address the contrast between Matthew Shepard’s Laramie and the Laramie in the post-crime national spotlight: “[H]omophobia becomes spatialized to the rural and possibilities for queer citizenship move to the urban, foreclosing the possibility of a queer rural citizenship” (2016, 269).
Presenting the Murderers
In this clip, the bartender at Fireside Bar and the local sheriffs talk about Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, Matt’s murderers, in ways that emphasize their rurality, lower class status, and criminal backgrounds. The bartender at Fireside Bar, the last place Matt was seen before his death, explains that McKinney and Henderson “came in pretty grunged out, looked like probably some local guys that had been working,” noting that they paid for their pitcher of beer with dimes and nickels. In the next scene, the Laramie sheriff describes Aaron as “a consistent customer” of the police department. In the film, the working class and rural backgrounds of McKinney and Henderson are connected implicitly to their supposed homophobia. For example, in scenes that take place after those in the clip, an unknown voice claims that Aaron McKinney said to Matt, “We’re not gay, and you’re gonna get jacked.” Later, a journalist who interviewed more than one hundred people connected to the case over the course of thirteen years, Stephen Jimenez, argued that McKinney told the story of Matthew’s death in this way because he
feared the consequences of being linked to the methamphetamine ring that they were both a part of. According to Jimenez, Matt and Aaron knew each other prior to the night of Matt’s beating and had had previous sexual relationships—something that doesn’t emerge in this film or in many discussions of Matt’s case.
In short, the film presents Matt’s murderers as if they could have been any Laramie local: poor, prejudiced, and with a tendency towards criminal behavior. In this way, the documentary produces rural Wyoming as a dangerous place for Matt. And Matt became a stand-in for any LGBTQ person and Wyoming became a stand-in for the homophobic rural.
Media and Gay Rights Activists
The previous two sections illustrate how the documentary reproduces metronormative ideas through its representation of Laramie and the people who live there. Such metronormativity is also evident across the media coverage of the case. In this clip, a reporter states, “police say robbery was the primary motive in the crime, but gay rights groups say Shepard’s homosexuality may have been the motive and are pushing for a strengthening of hate crime laws.” The documentary then cuts to Matt’s former guidance counselor explaining his decision to contact gay and lesbian organizations in Fort Collins, Cheyenne, and Casper after the crime had occurred: “We were sure that it was a crime that had to do with him being gay, not any kind of robbery, because you don’t take somebody out and beat him to death over $20. We had told the police that he was gay and that they needed to look at that as part of what was going on.” A journalist and friend of Matt’s explained that at this time, “there was so much emotion just pouring out
around the world. There was so much fear, and there was so much outrage. Mixed in with that in the gay community, I think there was so much hope. As awful as this was, would this be the one that would make policymakers care? Would this be that one that would reach homophobes around the country and wake them up?” Matt Shepard became a martyr and a gay icon overnight. As gay rights activists made Shepard’s case their own, they consistently framed his death as a result of being gay in a rural place. Walt Boulden, Shepard’s friend who was quoted by many media outlets, stated, “They hung [Matt] to that fence as a very clear message for the rest of us that this isn’t a place that you’re supposed to be if you’re gay…They displayed him like some kind of trophy. You don’t do that to a robbery victim” (245, emphasis added).
As touched upon in the previous section, Steven Jimenez suggests in The Book of Matt, that homophobia was not a factor in Shepard’s death and that his murder occurred due to a methamphetamine deal gone awry. Gay rights activists and liberal media acted quickly to discredit Jimenez’s claims. Neal Broverman, executive editor of The Advocate, for example, publicly expressed that he would not read Jimenez’s book. Broverman stated that he did not “want to know if Matthew Shepard had a three-way in a limo 15 years ago or dabbled in meth dealing or was HIV-positive. It doesn’t change the fact that he’s dead and that being an out gay man contributed to that death.”
In a chapter in The Legacies of Matthew Shepard: Twenty Years Later, Carly Thomsen reflects on such wholesale dismissals of Jimenez’s claims, arguing that such a refusal to believe that Shepard’s death could have been resulted from anything other than his being gay and living in a rural place reflects the extent to which metronormativity informs gay rights groups’ work (2019). Why, Thomsen asks, is it impossible for gay rights activists to even entertain the idea that a gay man in a rural place died for any reason other than being gay in a rural place? Why is it hard to imagine that Shepard may have done methamphetamine, perhaps as a way to self-medicate due to the sexual assaults he had experienced? Why is it hard to believe that a young college student sold drugs for money in a town with a 29% poverty rate, but just a 3% unemployment rate? Such numbers suggest that there were not many jobs to be had, and that many of the jobs already held by people were not particularly good ones. Asking these kinds of questions can allow us to re-think the narratives surrounding Shepard’s death, which, in turn, can create possibilities for broadening what we ought to think of as LGBTQ issues, including issues as diverse as sexual assault, poverty, and the struggling nature of rural economies. What better legacy, Thomsen asks, could Matthew Shepard leave?