All the facts in this piece are as reported by major newspapers, or by me for a Nation article in 1999. This piece was published in Salon in October of that year.
Sometimes the news takes you farther than you really want to go. After I read the first blood-spattered story in the Times, I found myself identifying with Matthew Shepard’s killers, the boys who tortured him for being gay. I still identify in a way that makes me flinch. I am gay. I hate violence. And I never tortured anybody. Why would I feel any sense of kinship for the creeps who hit Shepard with a pistol butt?
I’ve been channeling them ever since the murder. I can see them in the bar, as he pays for their drinks, as he gets affectionate. They’re 21 years old, and they are starting to get stirred up in a way that’s unusual for them, heavenly and enraging all at once. There is nothing wrong with what Matthew Shepard is doing; he is a beautiful boy who is lonely and romantic and who thinks he may finally have a date. In Laramie, it’s hard to meet people if you’re gay. It’s even hard to meet people if you’re straight.
Maybe, he thinks, he has a lead on a date, even if not the actual date. Gay people in Laramie like to meet other gay people just to socialize, just to meet people who might have friends who’d be dates. I have felt that way, too; it is a universal feeling shared by everyone who has ever really wanted a date, and I can channel Matthew, wanting somebody tender, somebody who might really know the way to treat a boy, someone with lips wine-dark and soft.
Russell and Aaron look like they could be gay, they even look cute. Their hands are dirty, but that only adds to their appeal. They are, after all, roofers. Walt Whitman noticed how sexy roofers are, and they are — those bare chests perched precariously on houses, sunburned awkwardly. But these are also boys who think they’re nobodies, they’re wimps. In their group of annoying, meth-crazed friends, Aaron is bullied all the time. They put him in headlocks and call him “the shrimp.” Russell, the cuter one, used to be an honors student, but his mother is the town’s most famous battering victim. He got hit by all her boyfriends, and then he and Aaron became meth-heads and dropped out of high school together. Now Russell’s mad all the time that he isn’t in college.
Matthew’s wearing beautiful clothes. Russell and Aaron stare open-mouthed at the stranger at the end of the bar, in his sports coat and his exquisitely clean shave, who thanks the bartender with a wonderful politeness after every round. The bartender loves him. He tips the bartender each time, which is more than most people in Laramie do. His hands are flower-like, and he is slight as a wand. He might be a wood nymph, sitting in their neighborhood bar in Laramie. They have never been allowed to be this feminine. They have never been allowed to take such pleasure in fabrics and textures as this boy is taking in his beautiful, expensive clothes, but they have wanted to.
Aaron lives with his infant son and sour 18-year-old girlfriend in a house that’s falling apart all around them. He burglarized a Kentucky Fried Chicken last year and his defense in court was that he was too drunk to know if he was stealing anything. Russell lives with his girlfriend in the most depressing trailer I have ever seen, with an outboard motor rusting in the yard and a neighbor’s vicious dogs to keep out unexpected visitors. Russell and Aaron can tell just by looking at Matthew that he’s fluent in Arabic, French and German; that he was able to be openly gay in high school, at a fabulous private school in Switzerland; that he has already decided on a career in international human rights.
The two of them scramble for change to pay for their beers, and they finally piece it together, $5.50 in change, and the bartender who likes Matthew so much doesn’t even want to touch their hands because their hands are that filthy. Suddenly, a silken voice surprises them all. “Let me help you with that,” the stranger says.
It’s the boy at the end of the bar. He’s the same age as they are, and it all feels like too much very quickly. They’re in a soup of intense and different emotions, all at once. They hate him for offering. They want to shove the money right back in his face. And they are gratified obscurely, like a lady at a tea party for whom a gentleman has covertly poured the tea. Now Matthew smiles a smile of terrifying sweetness and tells the boys he’s gay. Mingled odors of flowers and garbage stir in their minds, temptation and danger. They have always resisted the danger before, but no one has ever offered so brazenly, so ecstatically as this commanding little boy with bleached-blond hair. They’re attracted and appalled. His tiny body and the warmth wafting out of every part of him fill them with as much hatred mixed with longing as they’ve ever felt for any girl.
Or maybe even more. Russell and Aaron spend a lot of their time thinking they’re nothing, thinking they are garbage. In just a month Russell’s mother will freeze to death after staggering out of a bar, and not a single person will be surprised. Aaron spent most of his childhood locked in a basement. I’m not making this up. But till now, they’ve at least warded off being the sexual hollow men, sexual garbage that’s always been dinned into them as encompassed by one word — “fag.”
Boys are afraid of this word because it makes them think of openness, and violence. Sexuality and punishment both, in the same act. Beauty and terror. That’s why they clamp tight down on this word and never let it bloom in them.
I wasn’t brought up as a boy. And I’ve never been remotely homophobic. But I am right there with Russell and Aaron as they feel desire and terror at once, and they wonder what to do with this boy.
When I go to Laramie to write about this murder, I have just jumped into a new relationship that makes me feel as though I’ve plunged into the ocean. I am nauseous, and it’s icy cold. My new girlfriend makes me feel so open sexually that I feel in peril. It’s too hard to be that open and that vulnerable. It alternately hurts and makes me feel queasy, as though all my nerve endings have been sliced open. It’s also beautiful, there are hot colors everywhere and I even feel that sick, enormous hope that worthwhile things will happen and this one will stick around.
The girls I get involved with always make me want to kill them in direct proportion to the love and pleasure that they make me feel. I’m not a murderer, but I am, like many of us, someone who can get enraged by joy because of what it lays you open to. My rage at these girls doesn’t come from homophobia, but from that older, other thing that causes it, the bare and naked fear of sex and love. When I date, I am afraid of being obliterated, annihilated, crushed like a flower under someone’s shoe, and that’s exactly what boys feel when they start to be afraid of being gay.
What no one will admit about the Matthew Shepard slaying was that it was a murder about love as well as rage, there was sweet longing in it as well as the furious urgency to squash that longing. Russell and Aaron were motivated by beauty, not just disgust, and they picked the most beautiful place in town to kill him in because they could not not express that longing, that inner sweetness, in something. Everyone goes to this prairie to commune with beauty and that is what Russell and Aaron, in their agitation and torment, are trying to do as they lug that beautiful boy up there. They do not know what to do and so they hit him with the pistol and they hit him again and there is a flower they are trying to obliterate and maybe if they hit him enough times they can.
(c) Donna Minkowitz 1999