Strange new developments in the Mathew Shepard case. Jonathan Rowe gives an excellent analysis of the new evidence that seems to point to the entire incident being more drug-related than homophobia-based. How will both sides of the gay culture war respond?
Gay liberals and HRC types will shrug and appeal to emotion, as usual. He's still dead, and those brutal killers should still get everything that's coming to them. What difference does it make if Shepard was dealing meth, they will ask, he is still a human being and no one deserves to die like that. This is true enough, but the Shepard case was never merely about bringing his killers to justice. Shepard was turned into a lobbying tool almost the same day that he was killed, as the forces of progressive politics mobilized for the fight to obtain federal hate crimes legislation. The appeal to emotion was too good to pass up, and he became an overnight martyr for not only gay bashing and it's cruel realities, but also for adding layers of federal oversight to the judiciary in order to let hateful rednecks know that their time was up, and that we were watching them with the full power of the feds behind us. Killing someone in a cold, brutal premeditated way no longer carried enough of a societal stamp of disapproval for the gay lobby. We wanted to punish them for their hatred as well.
I was swept up in the powerful symbolism just as much as anybody else, and argued passionately for the legislation at first. It seemed like such a no-brainer - are you for justice for Mathew Shepard or for his killers? Rarely has such a potent red herring been granted to a political cause. One online aquaintance changed my mind, though, and except for 9/11 this issue changed my personal politics more than anything else. By helping me see that, viewed dispassionately, this was a federalism issue more than a gay rights issue, I opened my mind to other flawed assumptions of the gay left as well.
Legislating hate out of existence is a losing battle that will most likely turn to bite us in the ass. See: Europe. In dramatic cases where a grievous injustice necessitates judicial intervention, there is always social strife and dramatic growing pain. The reactionary elements of this country use this as an argument to avoid social progress via judicial fiat altogether, and in turn the left dutifully reports to the judge's chambers every time they encounter a stumbling block to their agenda. Two party politics doesn't lend itself to nuance or compromise very often unfortunately. The American public, however, effectively balances the two opposing forces by remaining stubbornly moderate about most issues.
The answer to the complicated issue of progressive social change is less dramatic, but more difficult, than either side would like to have us believe. Andrew Sullivan lays out a clear agenda (yes, Virginia, we do have one) for winning the hearts and minds of Americans so that we can correct a system that currently excludes loving gay couples from the social contract of marriage. Part of that strategy may have to include the courts, necessitated ironically by judicial maneuvers from the right this time. On the whole, however, he stresses the need to resort to good old fashioned democratic change:
The movement for equal marriage rights is, in fact, a centrist issue, and should be framed as such. Instead of speaking of it nervously as a matter of ending discrimination, and implying that all opponents are somehow prejudiced, Democrats need to use the positive language of faith and family to defend the reform. It should be framed as a way to bring all members of the family into the unifying institution of marriage; it must be spoken of as an issue that upholds responsibility and fidelity. The sheer existence of gay people in every state and every city and every family in this country should always be mentioned. Bush is able to get away with his policies precisely because he never mentions the actual human beings his policies would wound and marginalize. Democrats and inclusive Republicans must keep mentioning these people - their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. If they do, the inherent decency of the American people will win out.
How does the Shepard case relate to this current gay rights issue? Unfortunately, the fallout from this new turn in the case may provide the anti-marriage right with some useful propaganda. (I say 'anti-marriage right' because they are not against 'gay marriage' as such, they are against gay people and are more than willing to erode what little sanctity the institution has left to exclude us from it.) Many Americans will feel slightly betrayed by the push to make Shepard a martyr when in fact he may just have been an unlucky kid playing a game of risk that he was bound to lose eventually. His death remains just as tragic as ever, but his posthumous sainthood may take a political hit that we may have trouble recovering from right away. The constant need for the religious right to reinforce the image of gay people as drug users and sex addicts will be well served by the unfortunate context of Mathew Shepard's life and death.
Earlier in the year, striking images of gay men and lesbians in wedding garb proclaiming their love to the world did a lot to undo some of the PR damage that was admittedly often self-inflicted by the louder, if not prouder urban subpopulation of homosexuals in this country. In our zeal to shoot the moon with Shepard as a symbol of the fear and tragedy that merely being gay can still entail, we may have now lost more than just a symbol, but a lot of credibility as well. The sheer monstrousness of his murder may still help alleviate some of this damage, as it will seem inappropriate to malign the dead. The damage will probably be more subtle, as the betrayal factor sets in with people who will feel as if they were being manipulated by the gay lobby for so long.
Because they were.