Was Making Matthew Shepard the Face of Gay Rights a Mistake?


Generally we expect attacks on Matthew Shepard to come from the far right. The Michael Savages and the Tony Perkins, who are in denial about the homophobic element to his murder. But then along comes uber-progressive rag The American Prospect arguing we’ve erred in making Matthew the face of gay rights. Say wha’?

It’s not that Matthew’s death wasn’t a tragic one, or mom Judy doesn’t still feel the pain of his brutal slaying. But by turning Matthew into a martyr, into the face of hate crimes legislation, have we belittled the plight of other queer sufferers? The majority of LGBT victims?

Matthew was a good looking, college-y white boy, easily depicted as defenseless and wholly undeserving of his fate. That makes for good branding — which, don’t kid yourself, is what gay rights is all about. Everyone loves rallying around a wholesome member of traditional Americana, so it’s easy to see why, consciously or not, everyone from CNN to HRC made Matthew a cause celebre. This, despite him not being the first gay man murdered for being one.

But when the media and Gay Inc. branded Matthew as The Face Of Gay Victims Everywhere in the months and years since his murder, they also blocked other obvious sufferers. And it’s not that Matthew and his family aren’t deserving of our sympathy and shoulder, or that he shouldn’t be an example of why hate crimes legislation is so crucial, but by making him a gay rights mascot, scribe Gabriel Arana argues we’ve created a new class of victims: the invisibles. He writes:

Over 1,400 members of the LGBT community are victims of a hate crime every year, which includes violent attacks as well as harassment. Why, then, is Shepard the “face” of gay rights? The implication is that all the other candidates weren’t quite right: not urban New Yorkers dying of AIDS in the 1980s, not inner-city black adolescents whose parents kicked them out of the house, not leather daddies marching on Washington. The pictures of other gays, lesbians, and transgender people did not prove sufficiently salable to make it onto rally placards.

At worst, anointing Shepard the “everyday” face of gay rights is a concession to other types of bigotry — against trans men and women, racial and ethnic minorities, gay men with AIDS. At the very least, it demonstrates a willingness to appeal to mainstream tastes in order to earn political capital. It’s the type of pragmatic bargain that organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and Equality California make all the time: You give us rights, and we’ll hide the drag queens.

The “perfect icon” problem is not exclusive to the gay-rights movement. We revere Martin Luther King Jr. — a peaceful reformer who couched his calls for civil rights in terms of brotherhood and Christian values — instead of Malcolm X, a secessionist and Muslim who blamed whites for slavery and black oppression. There is also a reason the long-haired and beautiful Gloria Steinem is a better known feminist than Judith Butler, the androgynous queer theorist. All these figures have similar messages, but we choose to elevate those who are less threatening. Cast as a small, good-natured kid who loved everybody, Shepard is the epitome of nonthreatening.

[…] What hate-crime laws do provide are stricter sentencing guidelines, feeding a criminal-justice system that has imprisoned more than 1 percent of the U.S. population and unfairly targets minorities. The courts imprison blacks at six times the rate of whites, and Hispanics, at more than double the rate of whites; the rate of black incarceration under President George W. Bush was higher than it was in South Africa during apartheid. If the face of anti-gay violence were a racial or ethnic minority, would we still be pushing for hate-crimes legislation that props up the criminal-justice system?

Did hate crimes legislation need a face? Absolutely. It’s much easier to convince legislators, and the public, we need to protect someone rather than something. It’s why politicos trumpet out members of the working class, or health care sufferers, or war veterans, depending on their stump speech. Faces persuade; mission statements, less so. Matthew’s face is there to sell a cause, and it’s worked brilliantly. It’s hard, then, to criticize the strategy when it looks like it may finally pay off: Congress is en route to passing ENDA.

But there is something unnerving about the reluctance from so many of us to make a person of color one of our agenda’s faces.


Except, well, this might be changing.

While Matthew may be the face of hate crimes legislation, Jaheem Herrera and Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover (pictured), both young boys of color, are becoming the faces of anti-gay school bullying. This, even though there are plenty of good looking white kids targeted every day across America; they may even be killing themselves.

Must skin color play a role in who we anoint as a gay face? Yes, actually. Because anti-gay violence affects us all. Or maybe we should spend less time worrying about “branding” victimhood, and more time battling the influences behind what causes it.