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Gays assail ABC Shepard show
by Zak Szymanski
Bay Area Reporter, November 24, 2004
Was the murder of Matthew Shepard really an antigay hate crime? ABC's
20/20 doesn't think so, and to prove it, the show will attempt to
present evidence this Friday, November 26, that one of Shepard's
killers was a methamphetamine-addicted closeted bisexual who, while
triggered into violence by a sexual advance from Shepard, was not a
homophobic person in everyday life.
Shepard, 21, was beaten by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson in
October 1998 and left tied to a fence outside of Laramie, Wyoming. He
died in a hospital a few days after the attack and almost instantly
became the LGBT community's martyr, a poster child for gay rights
The often told story has it that Shepard was singled out for being gay
by a pair of homophobic "rednecks". McKinney's girlfriend at the time,
Kristen Price, helped to support that theory with her public
statements that McKinney was trying to teach Shepard a lesson, "not to
come on to straight people." That oversimplified story, according to
ABC, is exactly what the show is trying to debunk.
"The vast majority of reporting that's been done has talked about it
only as a hate crime and frankly, ignored other possible motives. ABC
News did a number of reports in the days, months, and years after the
vicious crime, and we are simply following up our own reporting,"
Jeffrey Schneider, vice president of ABC News, told the Bay Area
Reporter. "I think the report goes to the fact that there appears to be much more
to the story than has been previously reported. We're examining the possibility
that robbery was the motive and that crystal meth played a key role in this violent
Yet, according to a preview copy of the episode obtained by the Bay Area Reporter
through ABC, it was indeed Shepard's reported sexual advance that
allegedly set off a strung-out McKinney into a pistol-whipping rage
during an attempted robbery.
And it is the opinion of many of those interviewed, despite McKinney's
denial, that McKinney had engaged in sexual relations with other men,
and that he and Shepard already knew each other by the night of the
brutal murder. In short, a known gay guy touched a closeted man in
front of another straight male,
setting off a rage.
Still, according to ABC, the addition of drugs and Shepard's possible
suicidal tendencies seem to negate the possibility of a hate crime.
The show goes out of its way to shed light on Shepard's own reported
methamphetamine abuse, possible HIV-positive status, and downward
spiral that by implication may have led him to make poor choices on
the night in question.
ABC's Schneider declined to further discuss the episode on the record,
including why Shepard's HIV status was part of the story.
But the damage to be done by the 20/20 episode--which, at press time,
was still subject to edits before broadcast--does not come from the
so-called shocking new evidence that Shepard was reportedly a typical
college student who did drugs and had sex. It comes from the show's
shocking lack of analysis around the complex nature of most hate
crimes, and its intention, from the very beginning, to dismiss those
who were quick to hold Shepard up as the "symbol of the oppression of
the gay community."
"What proof did they have that this was, in fact, a hate crime?" an
incredulous anchor Elizabeth Vargas asks residents of Laramie, most of
whom respond with a resounding, "none," before citing McKinney's
drug-induced anger and apparently shameful bisexual past. The show
goes on to tell McKinney's story, which is corroborated by Henderson.
It is the pair's first interview with the press.
According to both men, McKinney, a user and dealer of methamphetamine,
set out on that tragic night specifically to rob someone. It was by
chance, they said, that they ran into Shepard at Laramie's Fireside
Lounge. Shepard eventually asked McKinney for a ride home and also
reportedly offered the men sex in exchange for drugs.
Immediately,said McKinney, he noticed Shepard's nice clothes and his wallet full
of money, and the three men drove away, with McKinney
planning to pull a gun on Shepard and take his money. With Henderson at the
wheel, Shepard put his hand on McKinney's leg, and it was then that
McKinney "hit him with the pistol… I was getting ready to pull it on
McKinney said Shepard was cooperative in the robbery, but the
drug-influenced rage by that point had taken over, and his violence
was out of control. McKinney even went on to attack others that night,
This is among the evidence that ABC offers as proof that Shepard's sexuality
was not the motive for the attack. Other examples include interviews with
McKinney's girlfriend Price, who admits that she and McKinney lied to the
media and to police about McKinney's gay panic reaction to Shepard.
The show does not examine why McKinney believed that gay people were
so devalued that his panic defense was a better excuse than robbery.
It does not address why sources who have admitted their history of
lying are now considered credible. And it does not address the fact
that drugs, unwanted sexual advances, and a history of violence toward
others are often a part of hate crime scenarios.
"Where acts of extreme violence occur, drugs and alcohol are almost always
involved," said Tina D'Elia, a hate crime violence survivor advocate at San
Francisco's Community United Against Violence. Part of D'Elia's job is to
constantly confront the over-simplified myths that hate crimes are simple
situations devoid of any other factors.
Although the Shepard case was not tried as a hate crime (there are no such
laws in Wyoming) by legal definition, a victim's sexuality does not need to
be the sole reason for an attack to be considered a hate crime.
And this is where the LGBT community fears that the 20/20 show will fall flat.
"Robbery and drugs were always a part of the narrative of this story," said
Joan Garry, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against
Defamation. "To suggest that antigay bias had nothing to do with Matthew
Shepard's death is ludicrous."
Joel Springer of San Francisco's Gay Men's Community Initiative also
voiced his concerns on the group's Internet chat room earlier this
"I think the ABC News story will be prone to creating revisionist history
about Matthew Shepard that will play into the hands, however
unintentionally, of those who hate us for who we are," said Springer, who like most members of the
community has not yet seen the show but has seen the sensationalized
"Regardless of the motives of these criminals, a gay man was
stomped and left to die. That is the fundamental fact of this story.
'Muggings gone wrong' do not include being tied to a fence. A defense of 'gay panic' cannot be
logically changed to suit the present mode of these guys."
For GLAAD's Garry, ABC's attempt to muddy the waters is questionable,
particularly, she said, since "no one has ever said this was a simple
murder" and a variety of credible sources were not interviewed for the segment.
Garry said those interested should visit www.glaad.org or
www.matthewshepard.org for a viewer's guide to the 20/20 episode.
"This piece should not be allowed to have any impact on the legacy of Matthew
Shepard and the spotlight he put on the bias our community faces each and
every day," said Garry. "It's simply not a credible piece of