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."
The "gays get what they deserve" quote caused a local uproar, thoroughly covered by reporter Edwards and discussed in letters to the editor. Witnesses to the NBC interview in Wild Willies dispute its interpretation of the bar patron's somewhat inarticulate and rambling comments. "Honestly," one witness, a bar employee, said, "the customer, although not eloquently stated, was taken out of context. His opinion was that in any state, any town…open gayness is a very touchy subject."
A co-manager of the bar even confronted O'Neil while he was still on assignment in Laramie. As reported in the Boomerang, O'Neil explained that not only had he not conducted the interview himself, he had not actually seen or heard the footage. Instead, he was "briefed" on it by his producers who had already transmitted the video segment to NBC's studio in Burbank, California, for editing. According to the co-manager's account, O'Neil admitted that he based his lead-in to the story on what he had been told at the briefing. Faced with a possible misinterpretation, the newsman allegedly became defensive. According to the co-manager, O'Neil "said `I won't waste my time trying to clean up this town's mess…for five years in a row hate crime legislation has been declined by the state. I don't think Wyoming deserves a positive picture.'" In an interview for this story, O'Neil did not deny making those statements, but explained that the controversial comment by the bar patron was selected over the other interviews because it was "higher quality" on technical grounds (i.e., had better sound, lighting, and the like) than the other interviews.
Reporters' explicit linkage between the killing and the need for legislation immediately transformed Shepard's murder from a routine crime rarely reported beyond a particular community to an emblem of a national trend. The hate crime news formula turns a murder into a marker--and a market--for a broader, more important, and more dramatic issue that is typically cast in the most black-and-white moral terms possible. Hence, the day after Shepard's death James Brooke reported in The New York Times that it had "fanned outrage and debate" throughout the nation. "Gay leaders hope Mr. Shepard's death will galvanize Congress and state legislatures to pass hate-crime legislation to broaden existing laws," continued the piece, which included a supporting quote from Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based gay lobby organization. "There is incredible symbolism about being tied to a fence," said the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force's Rebecca Isaacs, referring to the details of Shepard's murder. "People have likened it to a scarecrow. But it sounded more like a crucifixion."
Brooke's front-page story included a reference to conservatives, "particularly Christian conservatives" who "generally oppose such [hate crime] laws, saying they extend to minorities special rights." Steven Schwalm of the right-wing Family Research Council said hate crimes laws have nothing to do with perpetrators of violent crime and "everything to do with silencing political opposition" and that such laws "would criminalize pro-family beliefs." Rigidly dualistic, the hate crime news formula simply does not accommodate less polarized or more moderate views, such as those from openly gay authors and activists such as Richard E. Sincere Jr., Paul Varnell, Jonathan Rauch, Andrew Sullivan, and others associated with the Independent Gay Forum, which advocates elimination of government-sponsored discrimination against gays while opposing "liberationist" political strategies rooted in identity politics. In the hate crime formula, you are on one side or the other of all the issues. There is no sense, for instance, that a person might be gay, oppose the Christian right, and criticize preferential legal treatment for homosexuals.
The media's methods both reflect and reinforce those of advocacy groups, who similarly cast certain crimes as broadly representative. Less than a month after Shepard's death, for instance, the NLGTF mailed at least two appeals for money drawing heavily on his memory. One appeal sought money for a group in Fort Collins, Colorado, that was promoting a city anti-discrimination measure that would include sexual orientation. A second mailing sought money for the NLGTF itself.
Other gay groups, in places such as Los Angeles and Michigan, followed suit. Like the mainstream national media, they implicitly linked the murder both to a lack of hate crime laws and to a Neanderthal Wyoming culture. "Your donation becomes our tool, our weapon," one appeal read, "against ignorance and intolerance, the forces which killed Matthew Shepard." In an interview with The Advocate, the nation's biggest gay publication, Dianne Hardy-Garcia of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas approved of these efforts, particularly if the money is earmarked for the passage of hate crime legislation. She said there is "nothing more basic" than the need to pass hate crime bills. "We need to be frank with the [gay] community that we need more resources."
At least one aspect of the gay community's "outrage and debate" failed to interest the national media: The same Advocate story that quoted Hardy-Garcia cited a number of activists, most speaking anonymously, who condemned the use of Shepard's name so soon after his death. Some did go on the record: Terri Ford, a member of a Los Angeles-based political action group formed in reaction to Shepard's murder, said the NLGTF money raising efforts were "disgusting." A spokesperson for the NLGTF defended the fund raising efforts by saying, "We have often used tragedy to teach, and we will continue to do so."
A Socially Constructed Epidemic
The lessons that the NLGTF, along with other advocacy groups and national media sources, want the Shepard case to teach are clearly drawn: There is an "epidemic" of anti-gay crime in America, particularly in unsophisticated backwaters such as Wyoming; hate crime legislation is the only remedy; opponents of such laws are themselves allied with the forces of darkness.
Those are, at best, debatable notions; at worst, clear misrepresentations. In Hate Crimes: Criminal Law & Identity Politics (1998), legal scholars James B. Jacobs and Kimberly Potter analyze what they call the "social construction of a national hate crimes epidemic." Contrary to media and advocacy-group pronouncements, Jacobs and Potter found no substantiation of a hate crime "epidemic" against gays or any other group, "despite a consensus to the contrary among journalists, politicians, and academics." Their own analysis concluded that "in contemporary American society there is less prejudice-motivated violence against minority groups than in many earlier periods of American history." Violence against minorities "is not new and is not on the rise." They point to other "epidemics inflated by those committed to mobilizing public reaction," such as child kidnapping, drunk driving, and homelessness. The "uncritical acceptance" of the "socially constructed epidemic" is potentially damaging, argue Jacobs and Potter. "This pessimistic and alarmist portrayal of a fractured warring community is likely to exacerbate societal divisions and contribute to a self-fulfilling prophesy. It distorts the discourse about crime in America, turning a social problem that used to unite Americans into one that divides us."
While one would expect this relatively good news to be heralded as evidence of social gains and a greater tolerance for alternative lifestyles, the authors uncovered a very different dynamic at work. Lack of evidence hardly deters promoters of hate crime legislation. Indeed, even when the NLGTF's own 1993 survey reflected a 14 percent decrease in hate crimes against gays and lesbians from previous surveys in six major cities, a spokesperson announced, "All the anecdotal evidence tells us this is still an out-of-control problem." Using the survey as her supporting evidence, an NLGTF representative told a congressional committee that "anti-gay violence clearly remains at epidemic proportions." Another NLGTF spokesperson characterized the study as proving that the gay community was "under siege--fighting an epidemic of violence."
Jacobs and Potter contend that in a political environment dominated by identity politics, advocacy groups seek "to call attention to their members' victimization, subordinate status, and need for special governmental assistance…[They] have good reasons for claiming that we are in the throes of an epidemic…[Such] demands [require] attention, remedial actions, resources, and reparations. The…media also have an incentive….Crime sells; so does racism, sexism, and homophobia. Garden variety crime has become mundane. The law and order drama has to be revitalized if it is to command attention."
Given these forces, the "epidemic" theory has been widely accepted, even with no solid evidence or, indeed, evidence to the contrary. The formula is designed so that it can only be verified, never refuted. Such predispositions made it almost inevitable that the murder of Matthew Shepard--who was, by all accounts, singled out partly because of his sexual orientation--would be discussed in terms of the "hate crime epidemic" and the "urgent" need for hate crime laws. (That Shepard died just as pre-planned National Coming Out Day activities were beginning provided another ready news hook.)
In addition to the question of whether a hate crime epidemic actually exists is the issue of whether hate crime legislation would do anything about the situation. While the media uncritically articulated such an assumption, it's no more proven than the existence of the epidemic in the first place. In a New York Times op-ed piece, Jacobs said he was certain that the alleged perpetrators in Wyoming, like those who a few months before had murdered James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, were not "invited to their crimes" because of their states' criminal codes. In fact, all face capital murder charges and the death penalty (which has already been ordered against the first defendant in the Byrd case). "Yet well-meaning and misguided politicians and gay activists say the tragedy demonstrates a need for more state and federal `hate crime' laws," he wrote. "It is hard to see the current outcry as anything more than another chance for politicians to go out on a limb and declare themselves against hate and prejudice."
One could argue that hate crime laws have far more pernicious effects than simply allowing politicians to display false courage. Andrew Sullivan in Virtually Normal (1995) contends that hate crime laws are not only generally ineffective, they function as political decoys or placebos, actually maintaining the status quo of gay inequality. Fundamental, government-enforced discrimination against gays--including prohibitions against military service and same-sex marriage--is obscured by such laws, he argues.
Drawing a page from some death penalty advocates, supporters of hate crime laws typically contend that such legislation, whether or not it affects crime, sends the "message" that society won't stand for certain types of behavior. But individuals interpret messages differently; often they do so in ways unintended by the sender. While to some a hate crime law is a marker of a tolerant, enlightened community, to others it establishes grotesque hierarchies of victims. Such a move is inherently divisive, as it implicitly places more value on some lives; it also provides ammunition to anti-gay activists who accuse gays of seeking "special rights."
Such concerns were clearly at work in Wyoming residents' outrage regarding the disparity between the coverage of Matthew Shepard's murder and similarly ugly crimes. They were in no way rationalizing or minimizing Shepard's murder. Rather, they were expressing discomfort with the idea that one life is inherently more valuable than another. In fact, after Shepard's death, when the Laramie City Council was considering a hate crime ordinance, the mother of the 8-year-old girl who had been murdered earlier in the year opposed it, claiming it would create an "emotional split" among relatives of crime victims.
What? No Gay Bars?
With its lack of interest in local knowledge, the national media misinterpreted such reactions as further evidence of regional homophobia, a conclusion perhaps buttressed by the superficial sameness of Wyoming's population: According to official census numbers, it's 92 percent white, 5.7 percent Hispanic, less than 1 percent each African American, Asian American, and Native American. Journalists ominously reported that "Wyoming has no gay bars," a fact that becomes less compelling when one realizes that the state has no decent shopping malls, either: The paucity of both reflects economic realities, not political or cultural judgments.
If anything, a live-and-let-live culture has emerged from "high altitudes and low multitudes," to quote Wyoming politicians' favorite cliché. For instance, gays and straights alike frequent The Fireside Inn, the bar at which Shepard met his alleged killers. For a small population (453,388 in 1990, lower than any other state's) that occupies a space larger than the United Kingdom and averages fewer than five persons per square mile, the distances are too great, the people too few and interdependent, the economy too underdeveloped, and the sense of community too strong to accommodate the separatism that identity politics demands. In such a land of pragmatic tolerance, distinctions like that always will be unpopular.
That is particularly true when such distinctions are created and enforced by the government. Skepticism and resentment about government is widespread in a state in which 45 percent of open space is still owned by the feds and managed--arbitrarily, it is frequently charged--by bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. Dissatisfaction with land use policies is one reason why Wyoming has for years been an enthusiastic participant in the "sagebrush rebellion," the populist intermountain state initiative to curb the Bureau of Land Management's power over public lands within their states.
But skepticism about government does not equal intolerance, as Wyoming's trail-blazing history on women's rights and other social issues suggests. If anything, it equals an embrace of quirky individualism. Wyoming's quintessential and highly popular politician is former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson, who wrote in his 1997 autobiography, Right in the Old Gazoo, "I have flunked damn near every litmus test that was ever administered in politics. I am a conservative--but not as far as the Christian Coalition is concerned, because I am pro-choice [and gay friendly]. I think of myself as an environmentalist, because I worked hard on conservation issues. And yet I am a true believer in the multiple use of the public lands, something the real tree huggers will never support."
In 1998, the Wyoming Republican Party--which dominates the state politically--put out a 50-point platform that contained none of the usual Christian Coalition boilerplate anti-gay initiatives inserted in many state GOP platforms. In fact, only one of the party's 79 less-important resolutions commented on homosexuality, affirming that gays, lesbians, "and those engaged in alternate lifestyles have the basic rights and protections of American citizens…but…no special rights or privileges [should] be granted to them."
While the rhetoric about "special rights" is vintage Christian Coalition, it is buried in a cluttered menu of mostly trivial resolutions, a faint echo of the usual fire-and-brimstone fare. That is as about intolerant as even Republicans get in Wyoming.
The Road from Laramie
So what does Wyoming's live-and-let-live culture actually look like? On the last day of my December visit, I drove 40 miles west to Cheyenne to meet and interview Jim Corrigan, an officer of the United Gays and Lesbians of Wyoming. According to its Web site, the group formed in 1997 because gays "were sick of having nothing to do other than go down to Colorado for a little fun." It now hosts an annual August "rendezvous" in the Laramie Mountain range that attracts more than 300 mostly gay campers from throughout the region. It also has a Thanksgiving pot-luck dinner and a major winter casino event called "Lovers and Gamblers."
I arrived early at Corrigan's house in a pleasant northwest Cheyenne neighborhood, across the street from an elementary school where my mother had taught in the 1950s. Jeff Lowe, Corrigan's lover, greeted me at the door. He apologized on behalf of Corrigan, who was working late. Jeff said he would try to answer my questions.
As he played a video game with one of his three children, we traded coming-out stories that reflected similar complex experiences of denial, marriage, children, "coming to terms," and divorce. He told me the divorce court granted him custody of his children. After he met Corrigan, Jeff said, they bought the house to settle down and raise the children in Cheyenne. I asked him how neighbors, school officials, and people in general were treating him and his family.
"I love this town and this state and I'm happy being openly gay," he said. "I wouldn't live anywhere else. It's my home. I went to school here. The neighbor kids sleep over here and our kids sleep over there. There are no problems."
I asked him if Wyoming needed a hate crime law. He said the whole world knew the answer to that question, because reporters "from New York to New Zealand" had interviewed him and Corrigan. Corrigan's quotes on the topic had been widely circulated. Later, in a telephone conversation, Corrigan told me that he strongly advocated a hate crime law "because every nation writes laws to reflect their values and Wyoming needs to have the value of tolerance written into law." Jeff is less enthusiastic about that solution; his quotes on the subject didn't seem to make it into the papers.
"Did the reporters ask you about your neighbors and how life is in Wyoming?" I asked.
"Yes, they did. As far as we can tell, the press didn't use any of that. You never know what they'll use." Jeff shrugged.
When I asked Corrigan the same question, he agreed and added: "We resent the way the reporters came into this state with their minds already made up. If we didn't give them the right answers, they just ignored us. Their questions were always like, `Don't you feel unsafe here?' and we'd tell them no, that we were very happy here."
One might have thought that such reactions would have made it into stories about what it means to be gay in Wyoming. But of course, given the hate crime news formula, those comments can only be found buried in reporters' notebooks and on cutting room floors in Burbank and Manhattan.
Robert O. Blanchard (Robokieb@flash.net) is professor emeritus of communication at San Antonio's Trinity University and vice president of the Texas Log Cabin Republicans.