Opinion: The Gay Myths of Grindr, Stoli, Matthew Shepard, 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 us 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.