Sunday, May 26, 2002

Today I bought and read Losing Matt Shepard: Life and Politics in the Aftermath of Anti-Gay Murder by Beth Loffreda. For such a slim book, it sure covered a lot of ground. One thing I liked about the book is how present the author's voice was in the analysis--I never had to guess whether what I was reading was her own speculation/emotion/interpretation. It made it feel more like a conversation than a lecture. Now that I've finished it, I wish I knew some straight people who had read it also, because I would really like to hear their opinions on it. Actually, I'd like to talk to anybody who has read it. Definitely none of my co-workers have looked at it.

It's a deceptively complex book. I read it without any sort of effort, but discovered I was really thinking hard by the end.

The most emotionally gripping part was in Chapter Five, when she lets Rob DeBree's voice come through. He was with the Sheriff's Office and did a lot of work on the investigation. I was really impressed with DeBree's character, and I would be very pleased to meet him someday. I love people who are educable, people who aren't afraid to look around them and say, "You know, I could learn something here," and then explore it. Static minds are the biggest turn-off in the world--curiosity, now that's where it's at. So, I admire DeBree for being able to step back and say, "I can learn something here, I can learn what it means to be frightened and gay, I can learn how to protect people, I can learn something about myself this way." And he's doing all this soul-searching while still doing an excellent job as an investigator, that's amazing.

This chapter kind of kicks you in the stomach, because this is when you get the details of the murder. I don't remember really what I thought when I heard about it four years ago, I probably didn't think much about it at all, but if I did, I'm sure I wasn't surprised by it. Not that I thought everyone in Wyoming was likely to do something like this--Wyoming feels like my hometown, I loved being there, I know and love people who still live there--but I think a person can't come out of the closet without first facing the fact that someone, somewhere, might take it into his head to seriously hurt or kill you. I think I dealt with that fear long ago and put it away somewhere. So, I just wasn't surprised when Matt Shepard was killed, but when I read this chapter, I suddenly was paying attention. Not because of the anti-gay nature of the crime, but because it is absolutely horrifying to hear what two people can do to another person "just because." It seems clear that it was a hate crime, at least on some level, but even without that part of it in the mix, it's truly terrifying to recognize the human capacity for torture and violence.

Some long quotes:

On bias crime laws (p. 55-6)

"However, after more than a year of listening to people's opposition to bias crimes legislation here in Wyoming, it's clear that certain objections have reached the status of mantra: "All crimes are hate crimes." "Murder is murder." "Bias crime law is thought policing." "Bias crime law creates special victims and special rights." The premises of some of these mantras are easy to question. For example, it is simply not true that all crimes are hate crimes. The drug dealer and con artist may cause great pain, but their crimes are ones of greed, not hatred. The hit-and-run driver is not motivated by hate; the thief who kills the store clerk is most likely eradicating a potential witness. It would be possible to say that any crime is motivated, on some level, by a fundamental disrespect for social mores, but such disrespect is light-years from bias, from the loathing of certain groups or identities and the decision to act on such loathing.
"I wonder too about the claim "murder is murder." It seems to me that our legal system works on no such assumption. First-degree murder is not involuntary manslaughter, euthanasia is not vehicular homicide, although all these result in the death of another. The drunk driver who hits a bicyclist, the wife who kills her abusive husband in his sleep, the serial killer who stalks his victims, the fired employee who shoots his former boss--these are all killers, but we judge them differently. We consider intent--the drunk driver who accidentally takes a life while his car swerves out of control is culpable in our eyes but not as abhorred as the serial murderer who plans and kills with full knowledge of his wrong-doing. We investigate motive--the abused wife, fearing future assault, who deliberately kills her sleeping husband may be punished, but not as severely as the wife who deliberately kills her husband for the insurance money. To me, one of the most compelilng aspects of our legal system is this very potential for suppleness--its care for nuance, its desire to differentiate as judiciously as possible among various kinds of criminal acts."

On discrimantory violence (p. 144-5)

"...It seems to [the author], then and now, that the questions we in Wyoming most wanted answered--Did this happen because Matt was gay? Can we know for sure Henderson and McKinney commited a hate crime?--we were asking in the wrong way. Bias--homophobia or any of its cousins--rarely plays out, [the author thinks], in perfect focus. Discrimanatory violence is rarely fully plotted--even in its most grotesque manifestations, it is far more often a bleak and ugly blur of knee-jerk discomfort, semiconscious revulsion, false visions of vulnerability, opportunistic rationalization, and relieved retreats to familiarity and sameness. If we wanted [the perpetrators] to supply a version of homophobic violence so symbolic, so planned, so measure and pure in its intent and execution that we could no deny its existence, they were poor candidates. What they did instead was show us homophobic violence as it is more usually expresses itself: half-hatched, half-confused, complex and impure of motive, deeply curel, and utterly stupid."

An interview with the author, Sgt. Rob McBree, Keenan Keller

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