The "Us" and "Them" of Murder
Matthew Shepard

Steve Kennedy

  (October 16, 1998). Today, on the day of Matthew Shepard's funeral in Wyoming, I am thinking of a phone call I received 17 years ago bringing the news that a friend had been murdered in an anti-gay attack.

My friend, Steve Kennedy, was shot to death in San Francisco in 1981. Matthew Shepard was kidnapped, beaten, lashed to a fence in rural Wyoming and left to die in the cold last week.

In the nearly two decades between the deaths of Steve Kennedy and Matthew Shepard, dozens of people have been murdered in the United States because of their sexual orientation. Thousands of gay men and lesbians have been assaulted.

In a research study I conducted with 2,000 Sacramento gay men and lesbians, more than one in five said they had been criminally victimized since age 16 because of their sexual orientation.

Furthermore, hate crimes have more serious psychological consequences for the victims. In my study, victims of an anti-gay assault in the previous five years showed significantly higher levels of depression and stress compared to the lesbian and gay victims of "random" assaults in that same period.

Anti-gay murders tend to be especially savage. A 1996 Florida study found that homosexual homicide victims manifested a greater number of fatal injuries from sharp and blunt objects and a greater extent of injuries over the body compared to heterosexual victims.

How do we respond to these attacks?

Most of us pay little mind to the ongoing violence until we are forced to attention by a particularly brutal act.

Rev. Phelps and protesters at funeral: "Matt in hell"   Then a few see them as encouragement for even more bigotry. While Shepard lay dying in a hospital, a local fraternity made a joke of his attack on a homecoming float. An anti-gay minister, widely known for his "God hates fags" picket signs, announced that he will bring his followers to Shepard's funeral.

Most of us, though, simply ask why. What motivated the killers?

In the case of Matthew Shepard, Wyoming police initially believed it was simple robbery. But that doesn't explain the prolonged beating or why he was lashed to a fence crucifixion-style.

By one account, Matthew Shepard had flirted with one of his accused murderers. This is not an uncommon charge in anti-gay attacks. However, perpetrators may be all too ready to interpret any gay person's behaviors as sexual advances, regardless of whether those perceptions have a basis in fact.

More to the point, death is not an appropriate consequence for an unwanted flirtation. If it were, how many heterosexual men might not be alive today?

The killers may have felt threatened not by the physically diminutive Shepard but by the challenge he represented to their notions of what it means to be a man.

Or the perpetrators may have been thrill-seekers, looking for a target. Consistent with that explanation, the same men are accused of committing other assaults after the murder.

But what defines an acceptable target?

Some are blaming the Christian Right's media campaign promoting the message that gay people are sick and that those who can't or won't become "ex-gays" are sinners deserving punishment.

Without more information from the perpetrators themselves, however, such cause-and-effect scenarios are tenuous. The high school dropouts charged with the killing may not have even known of the Christian right's advertisements.

But the killers most certainly had a lifelong exposure to society's messages about how men and women should behave and how homosexuals should be regarded. They may have believed that no one would mind the loss of another homosexual. Like other perpetrators of anti-gay attacks, they may have felt that they were righteously enforcing God's and society's rules, administering "justice."

In all likelihood, many different motives played a role.

Even without knowing what went on in the minds of the murderers that night, we know that people like Matthew Shepard are attacked with great regularity.

Such attacks can persist only when society defines itself in terms of "us" and "them," and systematically deprives "them" of their humanity.

Today, the day of Matthew Shepard's funeral, it is perhaps most important that we resolve not to forget him and not to return to complacency until the next killing. We can further resolve to examine our own notions of "us" and "them" and to challenge the people around us who use those notions in the service of prejudice.

That would be a lasting tribute to the memory of Matthew Shepard, Steve Kennedy and all the other victims of anti-gay violence.

A version of this essay was printed in the Los Angeles Times on Friday, October 16, 1998.


  Memorial web site for Matthew Shepard
  Research on Hate Crimes
  Research on Homophobia
  Hate Crimes: Confronting Violence Against Lesbians and Gay Men (edited by Gregory M. Herek and Kevin T. Berrill)
  Other publications on hate crimes by Dr. Herek and his colleagues
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