17th October 2008
It is impossible to comprehend the loneliness Matthew Shepard might have felt as he hung from a rickety fence for almost 18 hours in a barren Wyoming field. If he was conscious during that time on Oct. 7, 1998, he may have wondered if anyone would come to his rescue after being beaten to within an inch of his life, and he probably knew that the reason he was beaten, the reason he was hanging on the fence, was because he was different.
Because he was gay.
The image of Shepard in that empty Laramie, Wyo., field conjures up a feeling of intense isolation, but the truth is that Shepard was never alone in experiencing the awful realization that his life was in jeopardy simply because of who he was.
Almost a week after being attacked by Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, Shepard succumbed to his injuries and died at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colo. Ten years after his death on Oct. 12, 1998, Shepard continues to be the iconic face of anti-gay violence in the United States, despite the brutal killings of many gay, lesbian and transgender victims since then.
Four months after Shepard was killed, 39-year-old Billy Jack Gaither had his neck slit, his head cracked open with an ax handle and his body torched atop a pile of kerosene-soaked tires on a rural Alabama creek bank. Like Shepard’s assailants, the men who killed Gaither — Steven Mullins and Charles Butler — said Gaither made an unwanted sexual advance.
A so-called “gay panic” killing also took place in metro Atlanta in May 2001, when Fulton County Assistant District Attorney Ahmed Dabarran was allegedly pistol-whipped to death while sleeping. Roderiqus Reshad Reed alleged that Dabarran forcibly performed oral sex on him after luring him to Dabarran’s Cobb County apartment, and said that he hit Dabarran in the head several times in order to escape.
Unlike Shepard and Gaither’s killers, Reed escaped jail time when a Cobb County jury agreed with his lawyers that he was defending himself from Dabarran, even though Reed stole Dabarran’s cell phone and ID during the killing.
And just this summer, Angie Zapata was beaten to death with a fire extinguisher after Allen Ray Andrade discovered that Zapata was transgender. Andrade faces second-degree murder charges in the 20-year-old’s death, but Zapata’s killing in Greely, Colo., has received scant media coverage.
“It’s disturbing to me that since Matt was killed, there have been equally as horrific crimes committed against other people because of their sexual orientation, or their race, or other reasons, and they didn’t get the same kind of press,” said Dave O’Malley, a member of the Laramie City Council who was the town’s police chief at the time Shepard was killed.
Shepard’s death helped transform O’Malley from a casual homophobe into one of the staunchest supporters of a federal hate crimes law. As passionate as he is about ending anti-gay violence, O’Malley said he wouldn’t be aware of killings like Dabarran’s were it not for his lobbying and activism on behalf of the Human Rights Campaign.
“The biggest horror of that is that [Reed] used the gay panic defense and got acquitted, and we didn’t hear anything about that out here [in Wyoming],” he said. “I think we need to keep the media working on those type of things so that people don’t think that what happened to Matt was an isolated incident.
“You can insulate yourself in Laramie, think the problem is solved, and not realize that the violence continues,” he added.
By the time Cathy Renna arrived in Laramie in the days after Shepard was attacked, media outlets ranging from CNN to MTV had already set up shop in the small Wyoming town to cover the death. One of the primary missions for Renna, who was working for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation at the time, was “to teach the media that this is not the first, and certainly not the last” anti-gay attack, she said.
“I literally just stood there and talked to reporter after reporter,” Renna said. “The reality is that what happened to Matt is not isolated, it still happens today.”
Shepard’s murder and the media coverage of it “became an issue that, for a while, permeated a ton of our work,” Renna said of GLAAD.
Five years after Shepard’s death, Renna was working equally hard to draw media attention to the murder of Sakia Gunn, a 15-year-old lesbian who was stabbed to death in 2003 in Newark, N.J., after rebuffing the flirtatious advances of her male attacker, Richard McCullough.
“I was fighting tooth-and-nail to get coverage,” said Renna, who noted that many media outlets even overlooked a memorial vigil for Gunn that 3,000 people attended.
Kim Pearson, an associate professor of English at the College of New Jersey, used the Lexis-Nexis database to compare media coverage of Shepard and Gunn’s death. She found that there were 735 stories in approximately 3,000 major newspapers in the year after Shepard’s death, compared to only 22 stories about Gunn’s murder.
“Shepard fit the stereotype editors have of a sympathetic victim — he was the ‘All-American’ boy,” Pearson said. “Sakia was a kid from Newark, she was poor, black and violated gender norms — she dressed like a boy.
“And, third, the circumstances of her death — what was this young teen doing out so late? — made her a less sympathetic victim,” Pearson added. “She was constructed as an ‘other.’”
Among the only media outlets to cover a memorial service for Zapata in Greely were a local newspaper and television station, along with the Spanish-language network Univision.
“Who’s to say why one incident gets pushed to the forefront and others are not,” said Donna Rose, a transgender activist who spoke at Zapata’s memorial service, which drew about 200 mourners.
The media have to walk a fine line of drawing attention to an awful crime and not intruding in “a family’s cocoon of grief and confusion.”
“You don’t want to turn it into a media circus,” Rose said. “This is an opportunity for families to grieve and for people to come together.”
Although media coverage of bias-motivated transgender killings is rare, Rose noted that one of the most prominent “common dates” transgender individuals share is the annual “Day of Remembrance,” which honors transgender individuals killed each year.
“Unfortunately, the lists of the people we come to honor every year is long,” Rose said.
MEDIA ‘GOLDEN BOY’
Most of the people honored during the Day of Remembrance likely never made the evening news, and their murders didn’t draw the international attention that Shepard’s did.
“Who Matt was was a big part of why he got that amount of attention,” Renna said. “Part of this was that he was a young, attractive, middle-to-upper-middle class white boy.
“He was very much kind of the golden boy,” she added. “He was not as much the ‘other’ as many people who are victims of hate crimes.”
Moisés Kaufman, the creator of “The Laramie Project,” a tribute to Shepard that was adapted from a stage play to an HBO movie, agreed that Shepard was an attractive figure for the media.
“He looked like your little brother, your little nephew,” said Kaufman, who recently went back to Wyoming to create an epilogue for “The Laramie Project.”
“If a Latino transgender woman goes home with a man and he kills her, she is not a worthy victim in our culture yet,” Kaufman said.
Kaufman, who is gay, and members of the Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie five weeks after Shepard’s murder to interview the people of the city. Kaufman said he wanted to go there because he was curious why so much national media attention was being paid to this crime and not the hundreds of others that occur each year. And he felt if he could gauge what was occurring in this Wyoming town, he could gauge what was happening across America.
That “The Laramie Project” remains one of the most performed plays in the country is rewarding, Kaufman said, because people are taking the conversation seriously. But the play is not Shepard’s legacy.
“The crime itself is its own legacy,” he said.
Even Shepard’s mother, Judy Shepard, has noted that the media covered her son’s attack because he was photogenic; in her work lobbying for hate crime laws, Judy Shepard has also regularly decried media for ignoring other hate crime victims.
Aside from Matthew Shepard’s demographic profile, other factors might explain why his death attracted disproportionate media coverage. Him being tied up and left to die inspired a “symbolism of the crucifixion” that was convenient for the media and gay activists, Kaufman said.
“The fact that is occurred in Small Town, USA, that may have been an aspect of it, and just the horrific nature of the brutality of the crime was a portion of that,” said O’Malley, the former Laramie police chief.
STILL NO HATE CRIMES LAW
The overall status and focus of the gay rights movement might also influence media coverage of anti-gay killings. Word of Sakia Gunn’s death began to percolate in June 2003, when many gay rights organizations were focused on the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Lawrence v. Texas, Pearson noted.
By comparison, 1998 was the year that “Will & Grace” brought gay people and issues into mainstream living rooms, and was a generally more progressive time than now, Renna said.
“As a culture, as a country, we were at a point where we were talking about gay and lesbian issues, we had a president who picked up the phone and called Matt’s parents and expressed his condolences,” Renna said.
Shepard’s murder also occurred a few months after the heinous killing of James Byrd Jr., an African-American who was chained to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged three miles to his death in Texas.
“Those two deaths in 1998 really provided an impetus to push for federal hate crimes legislation,” said David Stacy, a senior public policy adviser for the Human Rights Campaign.
A federal hate crimes law proposed in 1999 was later renamed to honor Shepard, but it continues to languish in Congress 10 years after Shepard’s death.
“The major obstacle really has been the Republican leadership in Congress, and more recently, the opposition of President Bush,” Stacy said. “It certainly is disappointing. There was a great deal of momentum at that time, and that we don’t have it yet is quite a surprise.”
Source: Southern Voice