In the wake of the brutal October 1998 murder-robbery of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, the news media, liberal gay rights groups, politicians, and others engaged in a national outcry for swift enactment of hate crime legislation. A hate crime law would, as Joan M. Garry, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, put it, "protect Wyoming gays from the kind of horrors which Matthew Shepard and his family have had to endure." The Wyoming legislature responded in February by voting on several hate crime bills--including one that even included protection of particular occupations, such as ranching, mining, and logging, from "ecoterrorists." A House version of the bill was defeated in committee with a 30-30 tie. Two Senate versions were defeated in committee by wider margins.
National proponents of hate crime laws were quick to pass judgment: Wyoming, rather than being "The Equality State"--Wyoming's official motto, adopted after it became the first state in the nation to grant women the right to vote--was really the "Hate State." Even as Shepard's grieving parents reaffirmed on NBC's Dateline and in Vanity Fair that they did not want their son's death used in a campaign for hate crime legislation or any other political cause, groups such as the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force (NLGTF) inferred that the legislature had not merely declined to fight intolerance but itself embodied intolerance for failing to pass the bill. "If not now, when?" demanded NLGTF Executive Director Kerry Lobel. "We are extremely disappointed that Wyoming refused to take real leadership on this issue."
Such reactions fit into the "hate crime news formula" that has become increasingly popular since the early 1980s with the media, advocacy groups, academics, and liberal politicians--all of whom have vested interests in fomenting a sense of continuous social crisis. A product of the identity politics mind-set that has come to dominate American society over the past two decades, the hate crime news formula uses widely recognizable and understood images--burning crosses and churches, neo-Nazi goosesteppers, and, most recently, the burned corpse of Billy Jack Gaither in Coosa County, Alabama; James Byrd, chained and dragged behind a pickup truck in Jasper, Texas; and Shepard's silhouetted body lashed to a Laramie, Wyoming, buck fence--to suggest that the United States is a seething cauldron of hate directed at members of unpopular groups. Although demonstrably false (even the statistics gathered by the advocates of hate crime legislation demonstrate there is thankfully no "epidemic" of such heinous acts), the formula remains popular, partly because it provides the media with a ready-made angle by elevating "ordinary" crimes to matters of urgent, national concern involving sexism, racism, and homophobia. Indeed, the formula provides big ratings and material benefits both to advocates and to their academic allies. And it provides politicians with the opportunity to engage in cost-free, camera-friendly symbolic activity.
With the Shepard case, the Wild West setting of the murder augmented the standard media narrative: Of course, the coverage implied, Wyoming's macho, frontier culture is closed-minded, bigoted, and homophobic--what else could it be? As an NBC reporter put it while standing outside a Laramie drinking joint, "At Wild Willies Cowboy Bar today, patrons said hate is easy to find here." Never mind that Wyoming was the first state to grant women the right not only to vote but to own property and to hold office; that it elected the nation's first female governor in 1924; that it ratified the Equal Rights Amendment in 1973; that it was at the forefront of a trend in the 1970s to repeal sodomy laws; and that in the 1990s, more than 70 percent of its voters rejected anti-abortion initiatives. For the media, Wyoming was a natural setting for such a bestial crime. As The New York Times editorial page intoned the day following Shepard's death: "Laramie, the home seat of [Wyoming's] university, is a small town with a masculine culture... [Shepard] died in a coma yesterday, in a state without a hate-crimes law."
As a Wyoming native (now living in Texas) and a gay man, I find such geographical stereotyping to be more than simply inaccurate and irresponsible. The coverage of the Shepard case delivers a damning lesson about the gross inability of the hate crime news formula to explain complex social situations--and it demonstrates that when the media and advocacy groups are faced with the choice of responding to reality or simply sticking with their scripts, they almost invariably choose the latter. Indeed, had they bothered to get beyond superficial pronouncements, they might have crafted a very different--and much more accurate--tale, one that reflected the outrage and sadness of area residents and put their rejection of hate crime legislation in its proper context. Far from symbolizing the last frontier of intolerance, Wyoming instead has said no to identity politics and the divisive, separatist group consciousness that hate crime legislation both reflects and perpetuates. While it is surely misguided to hope that anything decent will come from a tragic and horrible death, drawing such a lesson might at least salvage some small scrap of good from Shepard's murder.
In December, I traveled to Laramie to cover the arraignment of Matthew Shepard's accused killers for The Triangle, a Texas-based gay newspaper. I was particularly curious to learn how the horrible crime and subsequent media frenzy affected Wyoming residents, including former classmates and lifelong friends The lonely epicenter of the nation's Empty Quarter, Wyoming is seldom, if ever, on the national media's radar screen. There are exceptions--for example, when the president or another celebrity visits Jackson Hole or when Yellowstone National Park threatens to burn--but no one I talked to in Laramie could recall any event that generated anything close to the coverage of Shepard's homicide. As a local physician wrote in a column for a medical journal, "It was strange and disorienting for those of us in Laramie to be the focus of intense national publicity. For a while, we eclipsed the president and Kosovo as the top news story. News trucks were rolling down the streets, looking for people to interview. A friend from New York called to say that my wife was on national television; a crew had recorded the church service where she had sung. Tom Brokaw in the [hospital] emergency department, reporters in Burger King."
By the time I arrived, members of the national "media circus," as bemused and annoyed locals were calling it, had only recently folded up their tents and returned to their bicoastal media centers. Friends in Laramie expressed nothing but outrage over the Shepard murder. They said everyone in the local community and the whole state had been devastated by the killing. They were also outraged by other, equally savage murders that had shocked the community in the past year. In November 1997, the nude body of a 15-year-old pregnant girl was found in the foothills east of Laramie with 17 stab wounds; her 38-year-old lover, apparently angered by her refusal to seek an abortion, had left her to bleed to death. In the summer, an 8-year-old Laramie girl, visiting family in northern Wyoming, was abducted, raped, and murdered, her body later found in a garbage dump. A man with a history of heterosexual pedophilia was arrested and pleaded guilty. Though widely publicized within the state, these crimes garnered little to no coverage elsewhere, leaving my friends puzzled and disturbed. Why was the Shepard murder alone given such widespread, sensational coverage? Was it only because he was gay and, as a result, fit into a larger news narrative?
Those concerns were echoed by everyone I talked with on the subject, from the staff of the Laramie Daily Boomerang to Albany County law enforcement officials, from University of Wyoming faculty and students to waiters and other service workers. The Boomerang allotted considerable space to long letters to the editor expressing various degrees of disappointment and outrage at the national coverage of the Shepard murder. Many were bothered by the implication that the murder of a gay man was more horrific than other recent local homicides.
"Please," one representative letter from a woman in Douglas began, "the murder or death of anyone is tragic, but listening to all the media coverage of Matthew and then [to] have [other local murders] go virtually unmentioned, I felt a taste of bitterness and anger over this whole situation. Now I am hearing all the rhetoric for legislation to make penalties for hate crimes [harsher] than others are. I have difficulty understanding this mentality. Aren't all murders born of hate?" The Boomerang also ran stories on local critiques of national news coverage, including a public forum called "Hostility Bites" sponsored by the University of Wyoming Housing and Residential Life Office 11 days after Shepard's death.
Four major points emerged from the community-wide debate and discussion: The media were intrusive; they projected an unsubstantiated and unfair portrait of Wyoming as a "hate state"; they relentlessly linked Shepard's murder to the fact that Wyoming had no hate crime law; and they overtly promoted hate crime legislation as a necessary response to the death.
The "Hate State" Story
The national media's "hate state" narrative began in earnest three days after the attack on Shepard and two days before his death, with an October 10 dispatch by the Associated Press' E.M. Smith: "Alicia Alexander thinks she knows why a gay classmate at the University of Wyoming who begged for his life was savagely beaten and left tied to a wooden ranch fence to die in the cold. `That has to do with the fact that this is a cowboy place. People aren't exposed to it [homosexuality]. They're too close-minded.'"
That same day, The NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw ran its segment outside Wild Willies Cowboy Bar complete with a patron saying, "Gays get what they deserve."
According to Tiffany Edwards, the Boomerang reporter who wrote a detailed report of local residents' reactions to national media coverage of the Shepard homicide, NBC's Roger O'Neil interviewed a variety of bar employees and patrons but selected only the "negative" comments. Such pointed use of interviews and quotes by the television networks was a common complaint at the "Hostility Bites" forum. Matt Galloway, a student who spoke at the forum, had been interviewed by ABC's 20/20 because he had attended high school with Shepard and was a bartender at The Fireside Lounge when Shepard met his alleged murderers there. "The national media," Galloway explained, "will get 100 interviews and, if they get one like `gays get what they deserve,' they will use it."