Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Why the new Matthew Shepard story doesn't change a thing. #lgbt #book

Last year I heard the first irate hisses and scathing rants about The Book of Matt and its attempt to re-frame the picture of one of the gay community's most beloved and enduring icons. Stephen Jimenez picked an ambitious project when he decided to trample over sacred ground to publish a less angelic image of Matthew Shepard. The release of the paperback version has reignited the torches of the angry mob that rejects every page of the manuscript, starting with the book jacket.

The book is toward the bottom of my TBR pile, not because I'm leery of reading it but because when I get to the last page I don't expect it to change my perspective. Matthew died in a cruel and sadistic manner at the hands of monsters posing as human beings. Whether because of his sexuality or drugs, no explanation can defend what they did. They beat him unconscious and left him to die, hanging on a fence like an errant piece of trash blown there by the wind. Regardless of the motivation, they belong in their cages.

Courtesy of Pixabay

It's easy to see how that single scene painted Matthew as an innocent boy. Friends and family, who may not have known the college version of him as well as they thought, eagerly supported the image, as did Matthew's face. He looks sweet and innocent. Early claims that his sexuality motivated the crime (later retracted) only added to the scene's devastation.

The book tells a very different tale of a drug-dealing reckless kid whose perfect life was circling the toilet bowl.  Meth, HIV, and prostitution don't fit the angelic portrait of the boy who has been a rallying cry for almost twenty years. It's also not a new concept. People have hotly debated the motivation for the crime since the day it happened. Matthew's involvement with drugs is not new information. He wasn't an angel and he wasn't naive and innocent. That doesn't make him any less a victim. The violence of the crime deserved a harsher sentence than what Wyoming law could provide and that's the whole point of his parents' continuing fight. Had his sexual orientation been a major factor, the result would have been the same. LGBT people, notorious targets for such abuse, had no minority hate-crime protection under the law. His parents set out to change that and they have...though not in Wyoming. 

Does this renewed image of an out of control college student provide a more accurate view of Matthew Shepard? Perhaps, but it doesn't make him a less fitting representation of a problem that needs a solution. If anything, it makes him more of one. How many kids in our rainbow community are involved with drugs and reckless sexual behavior? How many do we lose each year to that existence? If nothing else, he remains a cautionary tale. If it can happen to the Shepard family, it can happen to someone else's. 

Regardless of what is printed in that book, I don't expect the LGBT community's image of Matthew as an innocent young kid to change. That's the thing about icons. Reality isn't relevant. Only perception matters. He's become a magnet, a rallying point for those who have a limited tolerance for the gay community. Rough and gritty is a far more fitting image, but an abused angel is easier for many to accept and has been instrumental in successfully lobbying for change when it comes to LGBT hate crime legislation, whether that was the central motive in his attack or not. Stories of addiction and random hookups couldn't have done what the original story of Matthew has. For that reason alone, the current version of his biography has merit whether wholly accurate or not. I don't expect Stephen Jimenez's rehashing of a sixteen-year-old debate to have much impact.

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