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Matthew Shepard and HIV: A Complicated Legacy

Matthew Shepard

Shepard was quickly embraced as a symbol of LGBT hate crimes. Less publicized was his HIV status and that may have been a tragic mistake.

Twenty years ago, on October 12 1998, Matthew Shepard died in Poudre Valley Hospital in Wyoming. Five days earlier the gay college student had been kidnapped, robbed, pistol-whipped, and left tied to a fence for 18 hours in near-freezing temperatures.

I remember exactly where I was when I heard about Matthew Shepard — I was living in  Manhattan’s West Village neighborhood in NYC making dinner with my boyfriend and my sister and her boyfriend. Hearing about it hit me hard — as it did many of us who grew up LGBT—I had specifically moved to New York because it was one of the handful of places I thought I could live freely and safely at the time.

They don’t tell you that you can experience a punch just by hearing an NPR story.

I remember how we gathered en masse from all points in the city and metro area to Union Square and the solidarity and sadness that permeated that first candle light vigil. The call to action was almost immediate. ''There is incredible symbolism about being tied to a fence,'' Rebecca Isaacs, political director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington told the New York Times. ''People have likened it [Shepard being tied up] to a scarecrow. But it sounded more like a crucifixion.''

Then President Bill Clinton responded to news of Shepard's death by urging Congress to pass the Federal Hate Crimes Protection Act, which would make Federal offenses of crimes based on sex, disability and sexual orientation. ''Congress needs to pass our tough hate-crimes legislation,'' Mr. Clinton said.

That wish would become realized 11 years later when President Barack Obama signed The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act in 2009.

The fact that Shepard had been diagnosed as HIV-positive at the time of his death was known by many yet often overlooked or hardly mentioned and that troubled me — as did the "explanation." Shepard, it was said, acquired the virus when he was brutally gang raped while on a senior high school trip to Morocco. As Vanity Fairreported in 1999, "Unable to sleep one night, Matthew had gotten up and walked to a nearby coffeehouse, where he chatted with a group of German exchange students. On the way home, a gang of locals accosted him, raped him six times, and took his shoes."


I recall the derision and baffled looks I would get when bringing it up his status with friends — it was something ugly to say in this moment said one — in 1998 being HIV-positive was a tarnish on his character. I always felt that the story of his rape was an explanation — a way to tie another incidence of him being a victim of LGBT brutality to his martyrdom — yet 20 years on I only see an alarm bell no one wanted to hear.

The late 1990s saw the emergence of anti-retroviral therapy (ART) drugs and major declines in transmission rates among gay men. It was a time when many speculated the end of the epidemic was near. It was a time that saw the emergence of this and other publications like Poz — people with HIV were living — not dying. So Shepard’s HIV status— especially someone who was my age — was an outlier to that narrative.

But was he?

In the ensuing years I would lose many friends to HIV — and I’m not talking about my mentors and heroes who’d acquired it during “the plague years” — these friends were contemporaries and for the most part crystal meth users. If his poz status was problematic then the stories that emerged suggesting that he was a  meth user was even moreso.

Shepard's family has embraced his status since and let's it be known every World AIDS Day (which is also his birthday). 

I know why HIV was the elephant in the room for many years — HIV and AIDS and its accompanying stigma has been wrapped up in gay male identity for far too long. I can’t remember not being aware of or living in fear of HIV.

But by largely ignoring it we let a far worse situation fester: while overall numbers of HIV transmission have steadily declined, one key group where it hasn’t is among young, gay identified men. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) “In 2016, youth aged 13 to 24 made up 21 percent of all new HIV diagnoses in the United States. Most (81 percent) of those new diagnoses occurred among young gay and bisexual men.”

And no one has any clear answers for these rates partially because of laws prohibiting doctors from discussing sex with minors.

People often speculate about what Shepard might have accomplished had he lived — to that the answer is we'll never know — we do know that at 41 years-old he would be a long term survivor. Had he survived Shepard would have been one year older than Broadway composer Michael Friedman who died of AIDS related complications last summer. Another supposed "outlier."

Maybe if we didn't want to look past the "ugly" fact that Shepard was positive if we had embraced the whole of what Shepard represented we could have deployed a more powerful antidote to the epidemic of meth use and HIV currently affecting us. 


Sleep in peace Matthew.



30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff and Wayne Brady

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