Frame Game

St. Matthew

The political use of a gay man’s gruesome death.

Newspapers and politicians are up in arms this week over the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming. Two straight men lured Shepard from a bar, robbed him, beat him savagely, and left him for dead. In 1996, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 21 Americans were killed for being gay. You’ve probably never heard about any of them, but this week you’ve heard about Shepard. Consequently, politicians who ignored anti-gay violence for years are suddenly demanding hate crimes legislation in Shepard’s name. How come?

Shepard’s martyrdom is in part a function of timing. He received his fatal beating just before National Coming Out Day, for which gay rights groups had already planned rallies and media events. His death gave those events a unifying theme and icon. Furthermore, after the beating, he lay in a coma for several days, allowing media interest to build. By the time he died, everyone with a TV set had heard of him.

But the decisive factor in the explosion of the Shepard story is the manner of his death. “At first, the passing bicyclist thought the crumpled form lashed to a ranch fence was a scarecrow,” began the initial New York Times dispatch. The dangling figure turned out to be “the burned, battered and nearly lifeless body” of Shepard, “who had been tied to the fence 18 hours earlier.” According to the Times, the assailants had “tied their captive to a post-and-rail fence and pistol-whipped him,” then “stole his wallet and shoes and left him tied to the fence.” The Washington Post reported that Shepard was “strung up on a fence to die in a grotesque tableau.” The Los Angeles Times said he had been “tortured with cigarette burns.” The Chicago Tribune said “he was pistol-whipped, strung up spread-eagle,” and “remained there for 18 hours in near-freezing weather–looking like a scarecrow.”

The image of Shepard dangling from the fence, still alive and bleeding, evokes two familiar images. One, played up by the New York Times, is the “compelling image” of “the black figure at the end of a lynch rope, hanging from a tree.” President Clinton and several liberal columnists have already likened Shepard’s death to that of James Byrd, the black man who was dragged to his death by three white men in a pickup truck earlier this year.

The other image is that of Jesus on the cross. “There is incredible symbolism about being tied to a fence,” one gay activist told the Times. “People have likened it to a scarecrow. But it sounded more like a crucifixion.” The media’s descriptions of Shepard reinforce this comparison. “His 105-pound, 5-foot-2 body” was said to be “frail and lifeless.” He was “slight of stature, gentle of demeanor and passionate about human rights,” according to the Post. In life, he had “seemed bright and open and full of promise.” After his death, his parents insisted that he wouldn’t have wanted his Wyoming town to be blamed. A fellow student mused, “I think about him out there, tied to a fence for 18 or 20 hours–what was going through his head?”

Shepard’s death arrives in the midst of a battle for public opinion between gays and Christian conservatives. The conservatives are struggling to defend two arguments. One is that being gay is different from being black and less worthy of legal protection. The other is that homosexuality is an affront to morality, specifically to Christian virtue. As a lynching–and as a crucifixion–Shepard’s death devastates both arguments. “Anti-gay politicians” such as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, are “legitimizing the sort of hate that left Matthew Shepard tied to a fence and near death, lynched on account of being gay,” says Post columnist Richard Cohen. The Family Research Council, by “demonizing” gays, contributed to Shepard’s death while hypocritically invoking the name of “Jesus Christ,” writes New York Times columnist Frank Rich.

The day after Shepard succumbed to his wounds, Terrence McNally’s play Corpus Christi opened on Broadway. Outside the theater, religious activists assembled to protest the play, which, as the Times noted, revolves around “a gay Christ-like figure.” The protesters are missing the point. The principal long-term threat that has arisen this week to the stigma against homosexuality isn’t the depiction of Jesus as a gay man. It’s the depiction of a gay man as Jesus.

Recent “Frame Games”

Tainted Jury“: Forget tampering, Clinton’s impeachment panel would be struck for cause. (posted Wednesday, Oct. 14, 1998)

Reverse Triangulation“: How Clinton’s immoderation helps the Democrats look moderate. (posted Wednesday, Oct. 7, 1998)

The Nixon Analogy“: Why the Flytrap-Watergate comparison will backfire. (posted Friday, Oct. 2, 1998)