All that changed when I saw him on the cover of The Advocate last week.
I was scanning the racks at Hudson News when I noticed?was actually startled by?Matthew's shy-looking, vulnerable image in black and white, above the headline "One Year Later." I had forgotten that it was one year ago that he was attacked in Laramie, WY. The photo was extremely beautiful and powerful in its simplicity. Though numerous columnists have either labeled the 21-year-old an "activist" at the University of Wyoming or canonized him, I saw a relatively plain-looking college student, remarkable for how innocuous he appears in almost every picture taken of him. He isn't wearing rainbow flags or flashing a placard proclaiming the need for equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans.
This is what struck me about the photo: Because of Matthew's ordinary status as a student, because of his boy-next-door looks and small physical frame, he has reached the level of iconic symbol in many gay rights circles, put a face on hateful violence in America. He is a human rights figure, instead of simply gay rights.
I wasn't moved by Matthew's death just because he was a gay college student like me. Living in a relatively urban area of New Jersey and attending school at a very liberal, mostly open-minded state university like Rutgers make being gay a nonissue.
Although people might not have recognized it at the time, a weird coalescence in the mainstream press around the brutality and severity of the murder occurred: the message that hate can cause heinous crimes was put out there. Over and over we read that Shepard was pistol-whipped and left in the cold for 18 hours, that the passerby who found him thought he was a scarecrow, that the only part of Matthew's face not covered in blood was where his tears had washed it clean. There was so much copy, so many pictures. A Time cover story about "The War Over Gays"; major coverage from the networks, who dispatched anchors or correspondents to Laramie; all those editorials.
Yet it's irresponsible to place too much meaning on the media frenzy. It takes a certain convergence of factors to bring about the level of coverage that the murder received. Most notably, here was a white, cute, small boy who seemingly couldn't harm a fly. Longtime New York reporter Rose Arce, who is vice president for broadcasting on the board of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, agrees that the coverage of Matthew's murder was intense, but noted that it was the sheer brutality of the attack that drew attention to it, that forced journalists and editors to focus on Laramie. "There are many murders each year of gay people that are extremely brutal. Unfortunately, news coverage is an imperfect exercise," she says. (Michelangelo Signorile also examined the Shepard coverage in The Advocate last week.)
Analysts in the media noted a link between the advertisements recently run by anti-gay groups and Shepard's murder. Time asked "Can Politics Cause Hate?" and reprinted the statements of several prominent conservatives, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's controversial equating of homosexuality with alcoholism and kleptomania.
My own sister, who happens to be a born-again Christian, recently gave me some literature from Exodus International, a coalition of "ex-gay" ministries that works to convince gay men and women they need to "cure" themselves of homosexuality and just love Jesus. The ads, with headlines like "I'm Living Proof That Truth Can Set You Free," ran last summer in The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today.
No, I don't think it's radical to say that hateful rhetoric?like extolling the virtues of "curing" gay men and women?contributes to an atmosphere of hate. Is there a scientific link between hate-rhetoric and crimes against gay people? No. But we can't ignore or underestimate the power of words. People are moved by what they read; their opinions are affected.
Shepard's death marked a turning point in my thinking about hateful rhetoric and violence. But it probably was not a turning point in the way crimes against gay people will be covered in the media. "In reality crimes go on and most aren't covered," historian Charles Kaiser, who teaches at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, says. "You still need a confluence of the attractiveness of the victim and a despicable crime? [It was] a landmark because of the amount of coverage. A turning point? I doubt it."
It is worth noting a few positive steps that have recently been taken. On Oct. 7, national religious leaders held the first-ever STOP THE HATE: Interfaith Vigils Against Violence Day, which brought together spiritual leaders and activists in more than 350 events across the country. While a hate-crimes bill languishes in Albany, California Gov. Gray Davis recently signed a measure protecting all gay and lesbian students in that state from discrimination. Judy Shepard, Matthew's mother, has filmed public service announcements with the country's largest gay and lesbian advocacy group, the Human Rights Campaign, which are running on MTV.
Aaron McKinney faces the death penalty, charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping and aggravated robbery. Wyoming has no hate-crimes law, and most court observers agree that it will not be an issue in the trial, likely to start later this month. When Dennis Shepard spoke at the HRC's dinner three days before the anniversary of his son's death, his voice broke, and he admitted that he thought gay people had equal protection under the law. He was in Washington, he said, because, "I do not want to see another Matt die."
The number of hate-crimes laws ultimately passed doesn't really matter. Nor do the vigils, rallies and other lobbying efforts that focus too much on legislators as the problem-solvers. It is in all of our words, in our daily, small interactions and ordinary encounters, in living honestly and hopefully, that true progress will be made. And for that, Matthew will not have died in vain.