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A Death in Wyoming

Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2003 by David E. Ross

A young man died in Wyoming. So what?! Young men die all the time. But this death was different. He did not die in an accident; what happened to him was intentional. He did not die because of something he did to his assailants; this was neither self-defense or revenge. He did not die in a random gang shooting; his killers chose him to die. Matthew Shepard, age 21, was murdered only because he was gay. Hatred and bigotry were the motives for his death.

Gay bashing is not rare, but this crime has attracted national attention. Shepard was not merely killed. He was severely beaten, pistol-whipped to the extent that his skull was broken. Then, while still alive, he was tied to a fence to die slowly.

Suspects in this killing have been arrested and charged. Since they have not yet been tried, it is too early to demand they be punished. I cannot yet point a finger at them and call them murderers. But I do point my finger at those who would make such crimes acceptable:

(All sarcasm in the above list is entirely intentional.)

Although these people did not actively conspire together, collectively they are creating a social environment where an individual can be a target for violence merely because of an innate, congenital, unchosen characteristic. This is not acceptable! And those whose actions attempt to make this attitude acceptable — even if only by condoning this attitude in others — should be called to account for the death of Matthew Shepard.

And, in case you were curious: No, I am not gay. I am straight — but not narrow.

Anti-discrimination laws do not single out groups of people for special privileges. Instead, these laws say that it is wrong to use hate and bigotry to deny individuals jobs, housing, education, and even life just because they share characteristics with a stereotyped group of "others". Since I am indeed not narrow, I not only want my government to say such discrimination is wrong but I also want my government — through its laws — to ensure that the "others" have the same rights as those who hate them. This is not a special privilege; this is equality.

13-14 October 1998

No, a law against hate crimes would not have saved Matthew Shepard's life. If all the laws we already have on the books actually stopped crime, we could close most prisons, lay-off half the police, and close our traffic courts. After all, the laws against discrimination have not yet ended that evil.

The real value in a law against hate crimes lies in the message it sends. With this kind of law, American society — we, the people, acting collectively through our elected government — declare certain acts are far worse than merely offensive. While vandalism against property and violence against individuals are already criminal acts, a law against hate crimes says that targeting a victim merely because of that individual's skin color, religious belief, or sexual orientation is beyond unacceptable.

Popular support of enacting laws against hate crimes can reverse the attitude that certain individuals can be targets of crime merely because they share characteristics with some stereotyped group. These laws will denounce the immorality of intolerance and ungodly hatred. These laws will proclaim the sin of homophobic Congressmen, radio commentators, and ministers who are too self-righteous to see the malignant hatred they spew. Laws against hate crimes will also tell the judges, broadcasters, voters, and others who accept and condone the hateful words of others that their sins of indifference are being judged.

23 October 1998

The trials are over. Matthew Shepard's murderers have been sentenced to life without parole.

One aspect of the second trial — the trial of Aaron McKinney — needs exploring. McKinney's attorneys unsuccessfully tried to use "gay panic" as a defense, but judge Barton Voigt disallowed any mention of this during the trial. In out-of-court comments, McKinney's attorneys indicated that their client was propositioned by Shepard and that McKinney — acting in the grip of "gay panic" — responded uncontrollably when he assaulted Shepard.

Of course, we will never know if Shepard really did proposition McKinney. Neither will we know if McKinney would have reacted with uncontrolled panic as a consequence of being propositioned by a gay man. But we do know that McKinney voluntarily went into a gay bar with his friend Russell Henderson (who earlier pleaded guilty to murdering Shepard) and left with Henderson and Shepard. If McKinney would react so negatively to an approach from a gay man, we must ask why he went into that bar and why he left the bar with a gay man.

Far more important, we must ask McKinney's attorneys about their disallowed strategy of accusing the murder victim for causing his own death. Yes, we should expect a heterosexual man to react negatively to a sexual proposition from a homosexual man. But we cannot condone reacting with deadly force. As my daughter told me, if an unwanted sexual proposition could justify a deadly reaction, few heterosexual men would survive their unwanted advances on women.

14 November 1999

A death also occurred in Arkansas. Jesse Dirkhising (13) was repeatedly raped and then murdered. The apartment where his body was found was rented by two gay men.

The homophobic Family Research Council and would-be politician David Duke (a KKK member) have drawn parallels between the Dirkhising and Shepard cases, and they demand that the news media subscribe to their twisted logic. However, very much like Euclid's parallel lines, these are two cases that do not meet.

Rape is about power. The rapist demonstrates his control over his victim by an ultimate demonstration of power. Young Dirkhising became a victim not because of his color, religion, or gender affinity. He was a victim because he was an easy target against which his killers could show their power. Unless the rapist is demonstrating his hatred of the victim's gender, rape is not a hate crime; and in this case, the accused felt attracted to males and not hatred of them.

Both Matthew Shepard and Jesse Dirkhising are being victimized again by the sick minds who assert similarities in their brutal deaths. Shepard indeed died as the result of a hate crime, committed by two men who purposely went into a gay bar to find a victim. Dirkhising died as the result of a crime of power; no matter how horrible, his death is really not different from the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl.

Neither the press nor the prosecutor in the Dirkhising have bought the strange assertions of the anti-gay drum-beaters.

(I must disagree about the various characterizations of rape as a sex crime. Rape is assault, a crime of power.)

25 November 1999
Updated 7 November 2003

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