Losing Matt Shepard: Life and Politics in the Aftermath of Anti-Gay Murder
Matthew Shepard was murdered in Laramie, Wyo., two years ago this month. Overnight, in spite of the attempts of his family and friends, Shepard was transformed from a person into a symbol, or even worse, a human public-service announcement. Author Beth Loffreda, who moved to Laramie shortly before the Shepard murder, uneasily watched a similar transformation happen to Laramie itself, a "complicated town," which found overnight, too, that it had been compressed into a sound bite, a swaggering cowboy town of hate.
In Losing Matt Shepard, Loffreda tries to give us a fully developed portrait of the Laramie landscape--its citizens, politics, and ethos--in the aftermath of the notorious murder. A University of Wyoming professor and adviser to the campus' gay organization, Loffreda deftly describes what she calls the "whiplash condition" suffered by Laramie residents hurtling back and forth between grief and exhaustion, civic pride, and defensiveness. (Anyone who witnessed Baltimore's own bizarre Mount Vernon Place candlelight vigil, at which Defense of Marriage Act-supporting Sen. Barbara Mikulski brazenly promised the candle-holders she'd fight for gay rights, will have no trouble recognizing the turbulent mix of emotions and hypocrisy that Loffreda recalls in Laramie in the days after the murder.) In her earnest attempt to limn Laramie's landscape, Loffreda so often despairs of ever being able to capture the essence of a place that you're left wondering why she bothered. What she intends as evenhandedness and fair-mindedness winds up feeling lukewarm and toothless. (When Loffreda begins a sentence with "it seems to me," it's a welcome sign that she's momentarily abandoning her relentless equanimity and is going to give someone one in the kisser. Thankfully, some of her footnotes are fairly acid too.)
Loffreda devotes one of the book's early chapters to describing the odd public gatherings attended by Laramie citizens and outsiders, gatherings at which ordinary Wyomingites displayed intuitive understanding of the roles they had to play in the media. Another chapter concerns the diverse lives of gay people living in and around Laramie, lives so diverse--as are the lives of their hetero neighbors--that nothing about them sticks with the reader. The book's least-involving chapter recounts the protracted battles in Wyoming and Laramie over hate-crime legislation, a topic that leads Loffreda astray into discursive agonizing.
Late in the book, the author turns to police procedure, particularly the yeoman case-working efforts of Laramie detective Rob DeBree, whose remarkable insights and opinions into the murder of Matthew Shepard carry the kind of assurance and precision that the rest of Losing Matt Shepard lacks. Loffreda's handling of the nuts and bolts of the investigation, seen through the experienced eyes of DeBree, is so persuasive that you wish she'd written a more traditional account of the crime, an accounting that would have greatly benefited from the same objectivity and caution that sabotages the book she did write.