Sunday, November 28, 2004

More than meets the eye:

Well it looks like there might be more than meets the eye to the Mathew Shepard case. This shouldn’t surprise us; life, more often than not, is complicated. A recent special on 20/20 casts doubt on whether Shepard was murdered solely, or even primarily, because he was gay. The two murderers now explicitly deny it. I don’t believe them entirely. But it’s possible that the murder primarily was a drug induced robbery, with some very important incidental homophobic hostility contributing to the savageness of the attack.

So what did the 20/20 special argue?

1) that the two perps planned on robbing someone that night;
a) they picked Shepard as their target;
b) they targeted Shepard, not because he was gay, but because they thought Shepard had money as a result of being a drug dealer;

2) that Shepard, like at least one of the two perps, had a crystal meth problem;

3) that the crystal meth addicted perp knew Shepard from the local drug scene;

4) that the perps planned to induce Shepard into the robbery with the idea of a trade of sex for meth;

5) once Shepard initiated sexual contact, the beating and the robbing began;

6) in the process of beating/robbing Shepard, Aaron McKinney, flew into an uncontrollable rage, not necessarily because Shepard was gay, but because he had preexisting anger problems, combined with the fact that he was strung out on crystal meth, combined with the excitement of the circumstance. McKinney just lost it and beat Shepard to death. To prove that it was a meth induced raged, and not homophobia, it was noted that on the way home, McKinney encountered another group of thugs, vandalizing neighborhood property, and McKinney accosted and severely beat one of them (with the butt of his pistol, the same way he beat Shepard). McKinney struck the thug so hard that he fractured his skull. Another thug then struck McKinney with a baseball bat. The police then became aware of the ruckus, and discovered the evidence that lead to the discovery of Shepard.

So how did the whole “hate-crime” story emerge? Well it was more than the fact that Shepard was gay and the perps were straight. It was an odd series of events, the strange sort of “coincidences” that make for interesting fiction—stories, TV plots, movies, etc. One of the perp’s girlfriends supposedly made up the story about them wanting to “teach a gay guy a lesson, not to hit on straights,” because she (mistakenly) thought that this might help him! That it would engender sympathy! She now changes her story and says she made the whole thing up. Then, in attempting to come forth with a defense, one of the attorneys constructed the “gay panic” defense—again because he thought it would be helpful, that it was the best he could do. In other words, unaware of what would become a national event, it was thought that a gay-bashing brought on by the victim’s advances would make the perps more sympathetic than a planned robbery that lead to a murder.

Something else was brought up—the fact that McKinney, the main aggressor, may have experimented with homosexual behavior himself. He was labeled a “bisexual” and the inference that was drawn was that he couldn’t be homophobic if he himself was bi.

A couple of things need to be said about this. I’ve blogged about this misunderstanding before. McKinney denied having homosexual experiences (what would you expect); but even if it were true, that does not earn him the label of “bisexual” anymore than for a gay guy who performs sexually with a woman (many can) earns him the label, “bisexual.” A bisexual is someone who has roughly a full-and-even attraction to both sexes, or at least something close it. They are relatively rare. And there is no evidence that McKinney fits that definition. If rather we are talking about a person who is predominantly heterosexually oriented, who can flourish only, in the long run, heterosexually, but nonetheless is able to enjoy (to *some* extent) homosexual behavior and/or has experimented with it, then 1) we are talking about a huge percentage of the population (and the flipside is also true of homosexually oriented people)—I’d argue at least 1/3, perhaps, over 50%; and 2) as we know, such a huge percentage of the population does not consider itself “bisexual,” nor should it (even if it has *some* degree of bisexuality).

Moreover, there are plenty of rough-heterosexually oriented thugs, in prisons, in the Arab world, in the Latin American world, who have had homosexual experiences, but are gay bashers nonetheless. So the whole bisexuality angle, I think, proved a whole ‘lot of nothing.

To me, the “new light” shed on the incident doesn’t mean much because I never invested much in the whole “hate-crimes” theory. If someone intentionally savagely beats another individual to death, then they deserve death or at least life in prison, regardless of the underlying motive for the crime—racism, homophobia, robbery, a snide remark, etc. And as I said in the beginning of the post, life, more often than not, is complicated. Sometimes, it’s just not so easy to figure out exactly “why” a particular event goes down; often there are more than one motivating factors. I don’t doubt that Shepard’s homosexuality was such a factor, but it might not have been the primary factor. So what? He was brutally murdered, and they did it. That’s all we need to know.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this in the future. Shepard’s murder was simply an anecdote and anecdotes, in a country of 280 million people, in and of themselves, prove nothing. Sometimes the rarest, strangest, tragic events occur and we don’t bat an eye because we know weird, tragic, shit happens. The reason why we would nationally publicize a single incident is because the incident represents a “larger” truth, or something that can be demonstrated statistically, not just anecdotally. In this circumstance, Shepard’s murder symbolized the brutal gay bashing that has been and is a reality for some gays in this nation. If it turns out that Shepard’s murder wasn’t really gay bashing after all, that doesn’t change the reality of the gay bashings that have and do occur. It just means that Shepard’s was a flawed anecdote.

Ironically, there have been many gay-bashing murders that do fit the “Mathew Shepard” narrative better than, what now seems, Shepard’s true story may not. For instance, in Bucks County, in 1987, a twenty-something year old gay man named Anthony Milano met up with two heterosexual thugs in a local bar. He went home with them, thinking they were “interested” in him. Instead, he was brutally murdered, his throat cut ear-to-ear and his body burned up in his car. There was no robbery angle (although one of the perps supposedly was on drugs when it happened, not that that matters). He was murdered solely because he was gay. And, unlike the case with Shepard, the two killers received the death penalty. But, astonishingly, a federal judge overturned the conviction of one of the perps. And that decision is now being appealed.

Everyone knows the name “Mathew Shepard,” but how many know “Anthony Milano” (just do a google search with ether name and see how many sites come up)? That’s the real tragedy.

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