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Family & Relationship Issues

by Beth Loffreda
Columbia University Press, 2000
Review by Janis S. Bohan, Ph.D. on Jan 3rd 2003

Losing Matt Shepard

Most people who are concerned about LGBT issues or about hate-crimes would recognize a picture of Matthew Shepherd: the diminutive, blonde college student, seen in a grainy photo widely published after his death.  And most who know of Matthew also know the story of his murder in October, 1998: tied to a fence by two Laramie men, brutally beaten and left to die on the Wyoming prairie, a victim of anti-gay hatred.  Remarkably, the title Losing Matt Shepard notwithstanding, this is a story neither about Matthew Shepard nor, except tangentially, about his murder.  It is the story of a community caught in the throes of media frenzy—“pack journalism,” in the author’s words—struggling to cope with an event horrendous enough in its own right that has also catapulted the town into the national spotlight—a spotlight that distorts even as it presumes to illuminate.

Beth Loffreda, the author of Losing Matt Shepard, describes her position vis-a-vis Matt’s murder as both an insider and an outsider.  She was a resident of Laramie when Matt died, but she was there as a new faculty member at the University of Wyoming.  She was a straight woman writing about a gay man’s death, but she was the faculty advisor to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Association, the only LGBT organization in town.  Her marginal position provides a unique perspective for her rendering of this story, and she is conscientious in drawing on other perspectives as well.  The book brings together material from interviews, court records, and media accounts, as well as the author’s own participant-observer insights to fashion this story. 

The aim of Losing Matt Shepard is to explore the community’s story, and this, the book accomplishes with thoughtful and engaging prose.  At the same time, reading the book is a constant reminder that this story, like any other, is but one portrayal, seen through the particular lens of the storyteller.  By granting us this alternative view, the book reminds us that there are countless versions of the story, raising myriad questions about why one story is privileged and others not.  Why has the story of Matthew’s death attained such visibility when the murders of hundreds of other LGBT people have not?  Why did the portrayal of Matt as the innocent, child-like, loveable victim supercede other possible stories, such as one that might query his puzzling risk-taking in accompanying these two men?  Why did the image of Matthew tied, spread-eagle to a remote prairie fence eclipse the actual circumstances of his death: sitting on the ground, his hands tied to a fence behind him, within site of a nearby housing development?  Why did the representation of Laramie as a regressive backwater supercede tales of the town’s willingness to gather in large numbers at vigils and to invest the full resources of the sheriff’s department in the investigation of the murder—to the point of sacrificing three deputy positions to the effort?  Why did we hear so much about the support of national LGBT-rights organizations and the benefit appearances of celebrities and so little about the fact that almost none of that support was invested in local programs?  Why did the media report so incessantly on their version of the story and reflect so little upon their own intrusions into and assumptions about Laramie and its inhabitants?

Losing Matt hints at but does not decide questions such as these while examining the puzzle of what really happened and why, as seen from the point of view of many who were closest to the events.  Loffreda explores the convoluted interactions among race, class, gender, geographic remoteness, local personalities, libertarian politics, media hype, and national LGBT politics that weave through the story.  Eschewing simplistic answers, the book invites us along on explorations of these threads, sometimes weaving them together, sometimes leaving them dangling, unresolved.  Even as she portrays a general disregard for the community of Laramie, its needs, and its citizens, Loffreda assures us that things have, in fact, changed as a result of Matt’s death and the events that followed.  Her collage of sources depicts complicated outcomes: some people are more tolerant and some LGBT people are more closeted; the town passed bias-crimes legislation and the legislation had almost none of the elements originally envisioned; hate-crime legislation did not pass in Wyoming and the University now includes sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy; most national GLBT organizations took advantage of the wave of publicity and then moved on and some were genuinely helpful in ways that have empowered local LGBT activism; Matthew’s death has raised awareness about hate crimes and his renown may have replaced a complicated human being with an icon of gay suffering.  

Although many salient points emerge from reading the book, below are a few that hold particular relevance to mental health dimensions of this story.  First, Losing Matt Shepard includes numerous references to the ways in which Matt’s murder became a “political tool.”  Matthew’s friends bemoan his becoming an image, a representative of anti-gay victimization, losing in the process his own identity.  This glorification of victimization is a matter of considerable concern in some recent literature on LGBT experience.  In particular, some authors have focused on the possibility that the image of LGBT life as inevitably fraught with danger and suffering denies the positive and expansive elements of LGBT lives and may actually dispose LGBT individuals—particularly youths—to lives of risk and self-destructive behaviors (Russell, Bohan, & Lilly, 2000; Russell & Bohan, 2001; Savin-Williams, 2001). 

Second, the glorification of victimization is not, of course, limited to LGBT experiences.  Indeed, some have commented on the emergence in recent years of a victim ideology that essentially honors victimhood, creating a sort of hierarchy of victim-worthiness, and declaring people heroes by virtue of no quality other than their victim status (consider the scores of people dubbed “heroes” because of their deaths in the attacks of 9/11).  This reification of victimhood as an identity, the appeal to the notion as an explanation (and even justification) for subsequent behaviors, and the glorification of victimization as a source of status have significant implications for mental health (see, e.g., Lamb, 1996), as well as for the healthy development of LGBT identities. 

Finally, Loffreda suggests that (at least some part of) the murderers’ motivation had to do with gender—their own uncertainty about gender adequacy, in particular, as well as the “macho” element of the “cowboy mentality” so often attributed to Laramie.   This point warrants greater emphasis, as gender role anxiety arguably plays a very significant role not only in this but in many (or most) anti-gay crimes—especially those where young men are the perpetrators and gay males are the victims (see, e.g., Bohan, 1996; Herek, 1986; Kokopeli & Lakey, 1992).

Returning to the original framework of this review, the question of why one story holds sway and not another, we might ask the reason behind Loffreda’s particular take on the story: why a story of Laramie and local LGBT folks and not of Matthew himself or of the impact of his murder on national LGBT politics?  Perhaps the answer is that the other, more dramatic story already had its day.  It was this, more mundane rendition that needed telling.  Perhaps this, more than the drama staring Matthew, is the story that will teach us something about everyday folks and how they allow, abhor, are diminished by, and are challenged by homophobia.

 

References

Bohan, J. S. (1996). Psychology and sexual orientation: Coming to terms. New York: Routledge.

Herek, G. M. (1986). On heterosexual masculinity: Some psychical consequences of the social construction of gender and sexuality. American Behavioral Scientist, 29(5), 563-577.

Kokopeli, B., & Lakey, G. (1992). More power than we want: Masculine sexuality and violence. In M. L. Anderson & P. H. Collins (Eds.), Race, class, and gender: An anthology (pp. 443-449). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Lamb, S. (1996). The trouble with blame: Victims, perpetrators, and responsibility. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Russell, G. M., Bohan, J. S., & Lilly, D. (2000). Queer youth: Old stories, new stories. In S. Jones (Ed.), A sea of stories: The shaping power of narrative in gay and lesbian cultures (pp. 69-92). New York: Haworth.

Russell, G. M., & Bohan, J. S. (2001, spring). Describing/prescribing risk: Queer youth and self-fulfilling prophecies. In the Family, 21-22.

 

© 2003 Janis S. Bohan

 

Janis S. Bohan, Ph.D, is Professor Emerita (retired) at Metropolitan State College of Denver.  She has published widely in the areas of gender, psychology of sexual orientation, and history of psychology.