An October, 1998 Time magazine cover article, “War on Gays,” declared, “What people mean when they say Matthew Shepard's murder was a lynching is that he was killed to make a point…he was stretched along a Wyoming fence…as a signpost. 'When push comes to shove,' it says, 'this is what we have in mind for gays.'" But what if, as a new bombshell book contends, it wasn’t so much a hate crime, but rather a drug crime? Also in 1998 two Texas men were arrested for having sex in their own bedroom. The Supreme Court’s ruling on the case, Lawrence v. Texas, affirmed the right of gay couples to have consensual sex in private. But what if the two men were not having sex? What if they were not even a couple? What does it matter if the stories that have changed our world are not really true?
In this week’s issue of The Advocate, the gay community’s premier magazine, Stephen Jimenez, a gay journalist with impeccable credentials who has carefully researched the Matthew Shepherd story, questions the myth of the murder that triggered America’s hate crime legislation. According to Jimenez’ extensive interviews in The Book of Matt, by several accounts, “McKinney, Matthew’s convicted murderer, had been on a meth bender for five days prior to the murder, and spent much of October 6 trying to find more drugs. By the evening he was so wound up that he attacked three other men in addition to Shepard.
"Even Cal Rerucha, the prosecutor who had pushed for the death sentence for McKinney and Henderson, would later concede on ABC’s 20/20 that ‘it was a murder that was driven by drugs.’” Jimenez’ research further reveals that McKinney and Matthew not only knew each other but also had sex together, bought drugs from one another, and partied together.
This in no way mitigates the horror of what McKinney did. He tortured and murdered a young man made in the image of God. He justly deserved his punishment. (The very circumstances of the crime on which hate crime legislation was based point to the difficulty of assigning a stiffer penalty to crimes based on “hate.”)
This summer the Supreme Court struck down DOMA and California’s Prop 8. The precedent on which they most heavily relied? The court’s Lawrence v. Texas ruling. The background of the Lawrence v. Texas ruling? Two gay friends were visiting a third friend. One of the gay friends drank too much, thought the host was flirting with his friend and called the police reporting “a black man going crazy with a gun’ at the host’s apartment.
Police arrived and charged the phone caller with filing a false police report and the host and friend with deviant sex. The host and friend pled “not guilty” and maintained their innocence. In hopes that they could appeal the constitutionality of the Texas law Lambda lawyers convinced the two to change their plea to “no contest.”
How does The Advocate respond to the facts that both the hate crimes legislation and the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas rulings were based on stories that would easily fit Stephen Colbert’s definition of “truthiness”– "where what I want truth to look like and how I feel about truth is more important than the facts of reality”?
The Advocate responds, “There are valuable reasons for telling certain stories in a certain way at pivotal times, but that doesn’t mean we have to hold on to them once they’ve outlived their usefulness… In different ways, the Shepard story we’ve come to embrace was just as necessary for shaping the history of gay rights as Lawrence v. Texas.”
So what is important is shaping the cultural and legal legitimacy of gay rights. If false stories help us achieve that end, then we tell them and use them. But we don’t need to hold on to them once they are no longer useful, read “once we have gained a position of power.” If they are proven to be false we can let them go. We already have what we wanted.
I find this fairly incredible. It’s the same approach that the Hitlers and Stalins of the world have used to create cultural myths and legitimize their power grabs. (To their credit a few Advocate readers protested such a disrespect for truth.)
And I wonder if it’s not that far from Yahoo journalist Virginia Hefferman who recently outed herself as a creationist. “I have never found a more compelling story of our origins than the ones that involve God,” Hefferman wrote in her July 11th column. “As 'Life of Pi' author Yann Martel once put it, summarizing his page-turner novel: “1) Life is a story. 2) You can choose your story. 3) A story with God is the better story.” The secular press pounced, but many in the Christian media applauded Hefferman.
However, I’m a little hesitant to vote for the most poetically or transcendently compelling story.
What I want is a true story. A story where the characters really lived (and died and lived again) in time and space. A story where the plot really happened in history and geography.
The Apostle Paul wanted a true story too: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead… And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.
“If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
“But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep…Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. (1 Corinthians 15:13-24)
I love this story. And I choose this story. Not because it’s aesthetically better. Or socially useful to get me what I want. On the contrary it asks me to die to what I want and live for Christ.
I love and choose this story because Christ is raised. The apostles who were eyewitnesses died for this story. I would not die for a lie…would you?
Christ is raised. His presence with us is real. His story has changed the world. And it’s true.