Twenty-one years ago, on October 12, 1998, openly gay, University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard died in Poudre Valley Hospital in Wyoming. Five days earlier, on October 6th, Shepard had been kidnapped, robbed, pistol-whipped, and left tied to a fence for 18 hours in near-freezing temperatures.
Shepard was pronounced dead at 12:53 a.m. on October 12, 1998.
The events leading up to his murder still has some gaps, but by early evening that night, 21-year-old Shepard was hanging out at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, Wyoming, where he met up with Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, and left with them.
McKinney and Henderson were immediately identified as suspects and arrested shortly after the attack and charged with first-degree murder following Shepard’s death. Significant media coverage was given to the killing and to what role Shepard’s sexual orientation played as a motive in the commission of the crime. The prosecutor argued that McKinney’s murder of Shepard was premeditated and driven by greed. McKinney’s defense counsel countered that he had intended only to rob Shepard but had killed him in a rage when Shepard made a sexual advance toward him. McKinney’s girlfriend told police that he had been motivated by anti-gay sentiment but later recanted her statement, saying that she had lied because she thought it would help him. Both McKinney and Henderson were convicted of the murder, and each received two consecutive life sentences.
At the time of the verdict, the New York Times said:
The killing of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Wyoming who in 1998 was beaten, lashed to a fence and left to die, shocked Americans by lifting homophobia to a new level of savagery. A jury has now convicted Aaron McKinney of murder, kidnapping and robbery in the case, and he could face the death penalty. The other defendant, Russell Henderson, pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping earlier, and is serving two life sentences.
Although Mr. McKinney admitted that he had committed the attack, his lawyers hoped to raise a type of ”gay panic” defense. In their opening statements they argued that Mr. McKinney was guilty only of manslaughter because sexual abuse in childhood had caused him to respond in a rage to the victim’s alleged homosexual advances. The presiding judge, Barton Voigt, rejected that argument as inadmissible at trial, ruling that it amounted to a diminished-capacity or temporary-insanity defense, neither of which is allowed under Wyoming law.
The ”gay panic” defense has no statutory basis, but it has been invoked in other cases. Typically, the argument is that the attacker, stirred by fears that he is himself homosexual, becomes so offended by what he perceives as a sexual advance that he is provoked to kill the victim. In other words, the attacker should not be held fully responsible for acts triggered by his own homophobia. Excusing violence motivated by prejudice would not be tolerated in racist attacks against ethnic minorities, and should not be allowed to stand in cases involving attacks against gays.
In an essay I penned for HIV Plus Mag dot com last year, I wrote: “I remember exactly where I was when I heard about Matthew Shepard — I was living in Manhattan’s West Village neighborhood in NYC making dinner with my boyfriend and my sister and her boyfriend. Hearing about it hit me hard — as it did many of us who grew up LGBT—I had specifically moved to New York because it was one of the handful of places I thought I could live freely and safely at the time.”
They don’t tell you that you can experience a punch just by hearing an NPR story.
The call to action was almost immediate. ”There is incredible symbolism about being tied to a fence,” Rebecca Isaacs, political director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington told the New York Times. ”People have likened it [Shepard being tied up] to a scarecrow. But it sounded more like a crucifixion.”
Then President Bill Clinton responded to news of Shepard’s death by urging Congress to pass the Federal Hate Crimes Protection Act, which would make Federal offenses of crimes based on sex, disability and sexual orientation. ”Congress needs to pass our tough hate-crimes legislation,” Mr. Clinton said.
That wish would become realized 11 years later when President Barack Obama signed The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act in 2009.
The fact that Shepard had been diagnosed as HIV-positive at the time of his death was known by many yet often overlooked or hardly mentioned and that troubled me — as did the “explanation.” Shepard, it was said, acquired the virus when he was brutally gang raped while on a senior high school trip to Morocco. As Vanity Fair reported in 1999, “Unable to sleep one night, Matthew had gotten up and walked to a nearby coffeehouse, where he chatted with a group of German exchange students. On the way home, a gang of locals accosted him, raped him six times, and took his shoes.”
— Matthew Shepard Foundation (@MattShepardFDN) December 1, 2016
I recall the derision and baffled looks I would get when bringing it up his status with friends — it was something ugly to say in this moment said one — in 1998 being HIV-positive was a tarnish on his character. I always felt that the story of his rape was an explanation — a way to tie another incidence of him being a victim of LGBT brutality to his martyrdom — yet 20 years on I only see an alarm bell no one wanted to hear.
The late 1990s saw the emergence of anti-retroviral therapy (ART) drugs and major declines in transmission rates among gay men. It was a time when many speculated the end of the epidemic was near. It was a time that saw the emergence of this and other publications like Poz — people with HIV were living — not dying. So Shepard’s HIV status— especially someone who was my age — was an outlier to that narrative.
But was he?
In the ensuing years I would lose many friends to HIV — and I’m not talking about my mentors and heroes who’d acquired it during “the plague years” — these friends were contemporaries and for the most part crystal meth users. If his poz status was problematic then the stories that emerged suggesting that he was a meth user was even moreso.
Shepard’s family has embraced his status since and let’s it be known every World AIDS Day (which is also his birthday).
I know why HIV was the elephant in the room for many years — HIV and AIDS and its accompanying stigma has been wrapped up in gay male identity for far too long. I can’t remember not being aware of or living in fear of HIV.
But by largely ignoring it we let a far worse situation fester: while overall numbers of HIV transmission have steadily declined, one key group where it hasn’t is among young, gay identified men. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) “In 2016, youth aged 13 to 24 made up 21 percent of all new HIV diagnoses in the United States. Most (81 percent) of those new diagnoses occurred among young gay and bisexual men.”
And no one has any clear answers for these rates partially because of laws prohibiting doctors from discussing sex with minors.
People often speculate about what Shepard might have accomplished had he lived — to that the answer is we’ll never know — we do know that at 41 years-old he would be a long term survivor. Had he survived Shepard would have been one year older than Broadway composer Michael Friedman who died of AIDS related complications last summer. Another supposed “outlier.”
Maybe if we didn’t want to look past the “ugly” fact that Shepard was positive if we had embraced the whole of what Shepard represented we could have deployed a more powerful antidote to the epidemic of meth use and HIV currently affecting us.
Sleep in peace Matthew.