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Karl Frisch Headshot

10 Years After Matthew Shepard and Media Still Can't Get It Right

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Ten years ago, a gay University of Wyoming student was picked up at a bar by two young men, driven out to the middle of nowhere, pistol-whipped, tortured, robbed, tied to a fence and left for dead. Eighteen hours later he was found -- still alive but comatose -- by a bicyclist, who at first thought the seemingly lifeless body, its face completely covered in blood except for the skin-colored trails left by tears, was a "scarecrow."

At the time of the brutal attack that resulted in Matthew Shepard's death six days later, I was working as finance director for then-Rep. Jim Nussle, an Iowa Republican with a staunchly anti-gay voting record.

Back then I'd never told a soul that I was gay. The attack did more than frighten me; it knocked the wind out of me. Raised in Los Angeles but now living in rural Iowa, I was concerned that should my secret ever be found out, I would face a fate similar to that of Shepard. The response from those around me within the conservative movement -- that Shepard was a "fag," that he shouldn't have flirted with the defendants, that he would burn in hell for his sexual orientation -- only sent me deeper into the closet.

During the ensuing trial of Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, the prosecutor argued that the defendants had played gay in order to gain Shepard's trust. Their girlfriends even testified under oath that Henderson and McKinney had planned in advance to rob a gay man. Ultimately, for kidnapping, robbing and murdering Shepard, Henderson and McKinney were each given two consecutive life sentences. Henderson avoided the death penalty in exchange for his guilty plea, and McKinney at the behest of Shepard's parents upon his conviction.

In the years that followed, I would slowly come to grips with my sexuality. I came out to friends and family. I abandoned the conservative movement in search of greener, less hateful pastures. I embraced hope and rejected fear. The country was changing right alongside me as public attitudes toward gay and lesbian Americans steadily improved throughout the decade.

For all the progress, though, debate over enhancing the current federal hate crimes law by including gay, lesbian, and transgender people among its protected classes rages on -- race, color, religion and national origin have been protected for years.

How can it be that 10 years after Shepard's brutal, bias-motivated murder we still find ourselves caught up in the same tired debate?

Witness Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina. During a debate over hate crimes legislation that recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives, she said : "The hate crimes bill was named for [Shepard], but it's really a hoax that continues to be used as an excuse for passing these bills." Foxx's "hoax" comment was made in an effort to bolster her apparent belief that Shepard's murder was the result of a robbery gone wrong. Where on Earth could she have come up with such an idea?

Enter ABC's 20/20. In 2004 the long-running network newsmagazine aired a special on the Wyoming hate crime that, as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) put it at the time, attempted to "undermine the notion that anti-gay bias contributed to" the murder.

Most damning of all, GLAAD noted that "20/20's piece relies heavily on the perceived credibility of Aaron McKinney, who is now claiming to have lied about the role anti-gay bias played in his decision to target and kill Shepard," and that McKinney's girlfriend "now claims she made up the story about McKinney's homophobic rage against Shepard," which she testified to at McKinney's trial.

Among other things, GLAAD also found that 20/20 had ignored "several important sources and pieces of information." There was "no discussion of the details of Aaron McKinney's confession to the police, where anti-gay bias [was] central to his characterization," "[n]o mention of the plea bargain that spared McKinney's life," and no mention of the provision of that plea bargain barring McKinney and his attorneys from discussing the case with the media.

Long before finding its way into Foxx's "hoax" remarks on the House floor, 20/20's report provided fodder for those opposed to an expanded federal hate crimes law.

Perhaps fearing a hate crimes bill that protects gay, lesbian, and transgender people will soon be enacted -- thanks to a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and the president -- many media conservatives have seen fit to maliciously attack the legislation, just as 20/20 twisted and misreported the events surrounding Shepard's death.

During a recent broadcast of his top-rated cable program, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly said of the hate crimes bill, which not only adds gay, lesbian, and transgender people to the list of protected classes but the disabled as well, "[Y]ou could make an argument that a pedophile has a disease, and because the disease is there, he's a target or she's a target." O'Reilly later added that pedophiles could be included because "[d]isability is included. They have a mental disability." He's wrong. Pedophilia is not considered a "disability" under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990; in fact, the ADA specifically excludes pedophilia. Bringing up "pedophilia" during discussion of gay and lesbian issues is old hat for those opposed to full equality for the LGBT community.

O'Reilly wasn't alone pushing this line of attack at Fox News. Sean Hannity, Bill Hemmer, and The Fox Nation website all advanced the false claim that House Democrats voted to "protect" or "defend" pedophiles. On-screen text along the bottom of the screen on Fox quite literally read, "HOUSE DEMS VOTE TO PROTECT PEDOPHILES, BUT NOT VETERANS."

When they weren't spouting off nonsense about pedophiles being protected in the legislation, they were busy pushing the false notion that passage of the bill would somehow suppress religious thought or speech. During a segment on Fox News' America's Newsroom, correspondent Molly Henneberg reported without question that religious groups are concerned that "they may be prosecuted for their religious beliefs if they believe that homosexuality is a sin, that it could gag ministers who preach that, or even if a church may not want to marry a gay couple. There is concern that they could face lawsuits as well."

Let us be clear: The assertion that this legislation would allow individuals or groups to "be prosecuted for their religious beliefs" is patently false. Section 8 of the bill unambiguously states that "[n]othing in this Act, or the amendments made by this Act, shall be construed to prohibit any expressive conduct protected from legal prohibition by, or any activities protected by the Constitution" -- which, of course, includes the First Amendment's right to free speech and exercise of religion.

Reporters, hosts, anchors, and pundits -- indeed, all Americans -- are free to feel and speak as they wish about the gay, lesbian, and transgender community. It's their right, even if they aren't being honest. Unfortunately, too many have chosen to use this freedom with complete disregard for the facts.

Fox News and those who parrot its brand of deceptive reporting on this issue have been left behind by an America that continues its centuries-long march toward increased equality.

How frightened they must be.

Karl Frisch is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog, research, and information center based in Washington, D.C. Frisch also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web as well as original commentary.