Opinion: The Gay Myths of Grindr, Stoli, Matthew Shepard and Pulse

 

Is the CEO of Grindr opposed to same-sex marriage? Is Stoli vodka really owned by a Russian tycoon in league with the homophobic Vladimir Putin? Was Matthew Shepard beaten to death because he was gay? Did the Muslim terrorist who shot and killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Florida do so because they were gay?

The answer is no, no, no and probably no. But the more interesting question is why the LGBT community, which makes up a substantial part of West Hollywood’s population, and the media that purport to serve it are more interested in publishing allegations of homophobia than in publishing the facts.

The most recent example of that is the publication by Into, an online magazine owned by West Hollywood-headquartered Grindr, of a story implying that Grindr CEO Scott Chen is opposed to same-sex marriage. That story was jumped on by Out, once a premier gay publication and now a sad bundle of paper with few stories and fewer advertisements. Out’s headline read: “The President of Grindr Just Said He’s AGAINST Gay Marriage.” He did not, but of course others followed the story, including the Los Angeles Blade, a weekly newspaper remarkable for its ironically (given its name) dull focus on politics in Washington and Sacramento and gushing profiles of local influentials.

What prompted the Into story and stoked the controversy was the fact that Chen, a married heterosexual man with two daughters, said in a Facebook post that some people believe marriage “is a holy union between a man and a woman” and added “I think so too, but that’s your business.”

But Chen never said he opposed same-sex marriage. In fact, he noted “… there are people who aren’t the same as you, and desperately hope that they can also get married; they have their own reasons for wanting that.”

The New York Times added some clarity to the story. It reported that Chen’s controversial Facebook post said that he was going to boycott the Chinese company HTC because he believed it was hostile toward same-sex marriage.

“Getting married is personal,” Chen said, wondering why anyone would spend resources as did HTC in a campaign against an effort to legalize same-sex marriage in Taiwan.

Grindr, the creator of the eponymous sex hookup app for gay men (and increasingly for transgender people), is headquartered at the Pacific Design Center and has a reach across the world. The struggle it now faces to restore its unfairly blighted reputation is reminiscent of what Stoli had to deal with in 2013 when gay columnist Dan Savage savaged it as a product owed by a Russian. Citing Vladimir Putin’s campaign against LGBT rights, Savage called for a boycott of Stoli. Joining him was West Hollywood’s mayor, John Duran, who attracted TV cameras as he poured fake vodka into a gutter on Santa Monica Boulevard and urged a boycott of the vodka brand without doing his homework.

Yes, Yuri Scheffler, the owner of SPI Group, which owns Stoli, is a native of Russia. But he’s most definitely on Putin’s bad side and distributes Stoli from Switzerland. As reported in 2002 by the Guardian, another reliable news source in an age where they are dwindling fast, Scheffler apparently lives in Switzerland because he is on Putin’s hit list. That’s information that could have been found in a very fast Google search.

For years, West Hollywood gay bars stopped serving Stoli, a brand with a history of supporting LGBT events and media. Today, finally, one can walk into a bar in WeHo and order a Stoli and tonic without getting a sneer from the bartender.

The most powerful truth that the LGBT community doesn’t want to hear is the real story of Matthew Shepard. Shepard was murdered in 1998 at the age of 21, and his body was found against a fence near rural Laramie, Wyoming. Gay friends of the young gay man, who had no real knowledge of the incident, quickly called out Shepard’s homosexuality as the reason for his brutal beating. The Laramie police department offered some support for that theory. But the reality is that Shepard, an actor in a methamphetamine sales pipeline in Wyoming, was murdered by another meth dealer with whom he occasionally had had sex.

The real story of Matthew Shepard’s death is documented in an incredibly well-researched book by gay investigative journalist Stephen Jimenez that was published in September 2013. “The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard” notes the incredible sadness of the death of a young gay man who in many ways was just getting his life started. But it also identifies the horror that methamphetamine has become for the gay male community.

Jimenez’s book was quickly condemned by gay rights organizations and LGBT activists, many of whom had taken advantage of the allegation that a young man’s murder was an act of homophobia to advance their own LBGT equality agendas. However, the book was praised for its depth by reviewers for The Nation, the Guardian and The New York Times.

Jimenez’s interviews over many years with 112 named sources and many unnamed sources, his review of thousands of pages of previously sealed court documents, and his conversations with the two men convicted in Shepard’s murder provide much more support for his conclusion about the cause of Shepard’s death than do the statements of two of Shepard’s gay friends.

The City of West Hollywood continues to support the Matthew Shepard myth, with the installation of a memorial at the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Crescent Heights that would be more appropriately dedicated to the methamphetamine menace that so many of our gay residents and their friends have to deal with and that the city and its elected leaders don’t much acknowledge.

And finally, there is the Pulse shooting. In June 2016, Omar Mateen shot and killed 49 people and wounded 53 others at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. It is recognized as the deadliest incident of violence against LGBT people in U.S. history.

But evidence is emerging that Mateen wasn’t targeting LGBT people. What is clear is that he had proclaimed his allegiance to ISIS, the radical Muslim terrorist group. However, in a recent trial in which she was found not guilty of complicity in the attack, Mateen’s wife said he had no idea that Pulse was a gay club. He had been looking for a crowded place to carry out the attack, and dropped plans to shoot up a shopping center after learning about its security. A quick, last minute Google search, she testified, turned up Pulse. Supporting Noor Salman’s statement is one by a security guard at Pulse, who testified that a seemingly surprised Mateen asked where all the women were when he entered the club and before he began shooting.

“There was no evidence he was a closeted gay man, no evidence that he was ever on Grindr,” wrote Melissa Jeltsen on Huffington Post in one of the few stories that have made an effort to refute the hate crime allegations. “He looked at porn involving older women, but investigators who scoured Mateen’s electronic devices couldn’t find any internet history related to homosexuality. (There were daily, obsessive searches about ISIS, however.) Mateen had extramarital affairs with women, two of whom testified during the trial about his duplicitous ways.

“Mateen may very well have been homophobic. He supported ISIS, after all, and his father, an FBI informant currently under criminal investigation, told NBC that his son once got angry after seeing two men kissing. But whatever his personal feelings, the overwhelming evidence suggests his attack was not motivated by it.
“As far as investigators could tell, Mateen had never been to Pulse before, whether as a patron or to case the nightclub. Even prosecutors acknowledged in their closing statement that Pulse was not his original target; it was the Disney Springs shopping and entertainment complex.”

The truth about all of these incidents can be disheartening to some. But one has to be at least a bit of a skeptic to make a real difference. I learned why I love being a journalist when one of my favorite editors, Stuart Dim at the Charlotte Observer, told me: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out!” My mother never did really love me, and it took me years to acknowledge and come to terms with that.

In this era of Trumpian “alternative facts,” finding, acknowledging and dealing with the truth is the only way we can move forward and make real change when it comes to issues like racism, sexism and homophobia. We have plenty of reasons to fight for our rights. We don’t need to make any of them up.


14 Comments
  1. I’m guessing no body commenting here read this book. I did, back when it first came out. It explains where the allegation that Shepard got killed cause he touched his killer’s leg came from (an effort by the killer’s lawyer to sway the jury with the notion that Shepard was gay and making an inappropriate sexual move.) And it explains why the prosecution, which knew all about Shepard’s drug dealing and sex with his killer, didn’t bring that up (they didn’t want to make the rural Wyoming jury hate Shepard). The prosecutor himself explains that in the book.

    But then in this age of alternative facts, who wants to hear the truth? Gays are truly the queens of denial.

    1. Gays are truly the queens of denial? That’s homophobic and offensive.
      You can’t be angry at people for going by the court record. The defendants used gay sexual advance as their defense.

      Then there’s a book written for profit that has many critics and we’re just supposed to ignore court room testimony given under oath to fully believe an author’s theory? I don’t know all the details of what happened that night and neither do you, so don’t be rude and dismissive.

      Are we supposed to believe the brutal murderers who left someone for dead then or now? You can have your OPINIONS but don’t be obnoxious just because you read a theory book.

      This whole article is irresponsible and inappropriate. Go peddle your anti-gay Alex Jones/Rush Limbaugh propaganda somewhere.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you Henry Scott for publishing this excellent and courageous piece of journalism! I say you are courageous because I have been on the receiving end of the vitriol from people who see Pulitzer Prize winning Stephan Jimenez’s book, “The Book of Matt” in my home, and I say that Matthew Shepard was both a meth dealer and a cross-state meth trafficker, who is likely complicit in the deaths of customers who he supplied. His death had nothing to do with him being gay; he was a criminal who died as a result of criminal activity. Because he was a cute little guy who came from a nice family, and some in the gay community apparently need victims to advance their cause, Shepard has been deified to the point that his remains have been moved to the National Cathedral. Unfortunately, the public tends to believe forever the FIRST thing they hear about a crime or major news event, even when after a couple of days the true story is revealed. Agendized people or groups know that, so they are often quick to get their own narrative out before responsible investigators have had the chance to do their job. West Hollywood should disavow Shepard as an icon and remove that memorial to him. It would make national news I’m sure.

    1. Pulitzer Prize winning? Please cite your evidence of this.

      The book was widely panned. Rob Debree, lead sheriff’s investigator at the time, said the book contains “factual errors and lies”, and deemed Jimenez’s claim that Shepard was a drug dealer “truly laughable.”

      Enough conspiracy theories. Stop trying to incite a gay civil war.

      1. Oops, Greg, you’re right that Jimenez did not win the Pulitzer. He was listed AMONG winners of the Pulitzer Prize and I didn’t take notice that he was not one of them.

        However, I stand by everything else I said about Shepard. I just did a search on Rob Debree and I found one reference to what you said, and tons that he said something completely different.

        The New York Times stood by the findings in Jimenez’s book. ABC’s show “20/20”, independently of the book, reported the same thing as a result of their own research, and got a LOT of hate mail for it, but no evidence that their reporting was incorrect. It seems to me that some very deep pockets were not challenged on their reporting that Shepard was a criminal drug dealer. Why would that be?

      2. Author Stephen Jimenez re: lead investigator Rob Debree

        “In its attacks against me and my book, Media Matters relies frequently on the claim that “investigators… have denounced the book as ‘fictional.’ ” Although two police officers, Dave O’Malley and Rob DeBree, have quarreled with some of the findings of my 13-year investigation, Media Matters fails to mention that several key law enforcement officials involved in the Shepard case agree with my conclusions. In September 2014, veteran prosecutor Cal Rerucha, who won life sentences for Shepard’s assailants, was quoted in The Casper Star-Tribune stating unequivocally, “If methamphetamine [hadn’t been present] in this case, we wouldn’t have had a murder.” The newspaper also noted, “[Rerucha] remains adamant that Shepard’s death wasn’t a hate crime.” He has repeatedly gone on record praising me and my work. In 2004, O’Malley, a police commander at the time of the murder, urged prosecutor Rerucha not to talk to ABC News 20/20 for a story I produced about undisclosed aspects of the Shepard case — “because of all the good that’s been done in Matt’s name,” according to Rerucha. In essence, O’Malley tried to enlist Rerucha in covering up the truth.”

  3. There may be some levels of gray to these stories but this entry is conspiracy level.

    Out’s headline may have been misleading, but a president of a gay app shouldn’t be saying he agrees marriage “is a holy union between a man and a woman.” Not if you want to keep your job.

    For Matt Shepard: The defense and accused introduced the crime was triggered by their attitude towards gays. Jimenez’s book was widely criticized by police. Let’s go with court record over a sensation and misleading book sold for profit.

    For Pulse you quote a Huff Po reporter, “There was no evidence he was a closeted gay man” but the man’s ex-wife repeatedly has made these comments, “He might have been homosexual himself and lived that lifestyle but could never ever come clean about it because of the standards of his father, because of the obligation to be a perfect son”

    Not sure why you’re using gay stories as your reference point for bad journalism, but now you’re exactly that.

  4. Truly disappointing to see WehoVille publish such a vile attack on a hate crime victim, citing innuendo as if it were now a fact.

    Honestly, is WehoVille that hard up for cash? Have some integrity. You’re entitled to your own view on the aforementioned topics, but not your own facts. But spreading the conclusions of that book as if they are the “real story” is nothing short of depraved.

    McKinney, in his own confession, used homophobic slurs to refer to Shepard. By his own admission, he attacked Shepard after he put his hand on his leg. This book was nothing simply a disgusting attempt by its author to profit off Shepard’s death and to give a gift to Henderson’s defense attorneys who are now trying to get him released early.

    As far as Stoli, the issue was complicated when it first came to light, and there was evidence to suggest that Putin profited from the sale of Stoli–despite the owner being on Putin’s bad side. A simple Google search didn’t disprove anything. In fact, neither did numerous, complex Google searches — as I personally conducted them, looking to find out the details. It wasn’t as black and white as others had made it, nor was it nearly as black & white as the author of this opinion piece is trying to make it appear. Savage did later speak to this topic, but people weren’t blindly supporting it. There was quite a bit of discussion around this among my friends and I.

    As far as Grindr, both are true. The sensationalist headline aside, Grindr’s CEO’s quote is quite clear: he thinks marriage is a holy union between a man & a woman (WRONG), but he used this statement to opposes HTC’s lead exec’s attacks on marriage equality. Personally, I think his intent was good, so I wish the community hadn’t attacked as quickly as it had. This was a teaching opportunity of something that was (I think) well-intentioned. But it is nonetheless, a bit disheartening to hear a straight CEO head of a product targeted to gay people say that marriage is a holy matrimony between a man & a woman, so he’s right to take some heat from that, however disproportionate it may be.

    The Pulse shooting? We likely will never fully now his true motives, but none of that erases the fact, as you pointed out, it was still the deadliest mass shooting of LGBT people in US history at the hands of gun violence.

    But back to my beef: referring to that book as if it were the “real story” of Matthew Shepard is just vile and morally reprehensible. WehoVille and the author of this piece should print a retraction and apologize for spreading this drivel about Shepard as if it were proven fact.

  5. Thank you for reminding us of another one of Duran’s stupid “look at me” moments in WeHo’s history. I had forgotten about that one.

  6. The author’s interpretation of truth is heavy with words inferring the same level of certainties that were once accepted as settled narrative in each of these situations. I think the real answers in these four situations are more accurately (and in no particular order) maybe, perhaps, could have been, and who really knows.

    There’s always a bit of obfuscation on both sides to support one argument or the other. Dan Savage might have conveniently failed to mention that Scheffler is/was on Putin’s bad list, but that doesn’t negate the fact that Scheffler is indeed Russian by birth. For the record, I never stopped drinking Stoli because I viewed the the arguments against it to be specious, at best.

    Mr. Chen is said to have “never” said that he’s opposed to marriage equality, but I don’t think we can prove what someone never said. Further, I personally would not support a man who profits handsomely off the gay community who does not support our rights with full throttle. We don’t need to parse the words of capitalists who want our money, but not our rights.

    Scientific truth as we know it is never the result of one study, or two, or even a dozen. It is the cumulative body of knowledge gained over years of study, research, fact-finding, and sampling that results in a small bit of scientific truth, which even then is subject to further refinement. To boil the complexities of four emotionally charged situations down to often conflated phrases and words in a relatively short opinion piece is not something that results in a new truth, only further questions on the path to truth.

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