Um, he’s a symbol, not a God

Every once in a while you bump into the most irritating type of writing: the liberal contrarian handwringing that someone else on the left might be falling for some mythos that the writer’s counter-intuitive story is going to fix. So there’s this about the problem of the use of Matthew Shepard as a political symbol. The title of the article is “The Deification of Matthew Shepard: What the gay-rights movement has lost by making Shepard its icon ,” which gives it away:

As Shepard’s father said at the trial of the two men eventually convicted of killing Shepard, “My son has become a symbol.”

This familiar story — Matthew as a pure, meek victim of anti-gay bigotry — remains an orthodoxy unquestioned by all but the most ardent gay-rights opponents. In fact, Shepard was a deeply troubled young man. He had a severe drug and alcohol problem, suffered from bouts of depression, and failed out of school numerous times. He spent his money on partying, leaving him unable to pay bills. He contracted HIV, most likely through unsafe sex. These darker details are conspicuously absent from the prevailing narrative about Shepard’s life.

First, maybe I’m missing something in my neck of the woods, but usually I’m pretty hip to these things and Shepard is mentioned, if at all, because he represents someone killed simply for being gay, not because he may or may not be an example to be followed. (What horrific example would that be anyway?) The author falls into the problem of many of these contrarian type of articles: first, Shepard’s got all these “dark” spots, so the deification that I’m presuming as the writer is a problem. Second, hey, it’s wrong that someone is stigmatized for these problems (so why not use other people?). Anyway, the point is that if he’s a symbol at all—he’s been portrayed as pure? how has he been deified?—is because of the fact that he suffered for being gay where it is least acceptable, in the backwoods of America (and American culture). That’s the difference between a symbol and a god—whatever orthodoxy or purity the author can’t see past the “darker details” of Shepard’s life. What does this prove? Thanks for letting us know, dear author, that this young kid liked to have sex and party. And that would make him different from all of my USD students, how? Next article: why rape victims shouldn’t dress in such short skirts. And how certain country singers really just invited Kanye West to take their award away .