I hope you’ll indulge me as I tackle Matthew Shepard more deeply today as I try to explore more about what he, his life, and his death meant and continues to mean to me.
As I noted yesterday, I would have more to say today—last night I went to see the epilogue to The Laramie Project—artfully entitled “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.” Additionally, whilst in Laramie I picked up a copy of the new book by Judy Shepard, The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed.
The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later
It wasn’t intentional, but this trip happened to coincide with the time frame of Matthew Shepard’s murder 11 years ago in Laramie—and, by chance, the days of the week matched. Originally I planned to leave Monday afternoon, but by chance I happened to hear the day before I planned to book my tickets, via Milkboys (NSFW), that the premier reading for The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later would be Monday evening, so I added an extra day to the end of my journey in order to watch the reading put on at the Denver University Newman Center.
I’ve seen the original play twice: once at the Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis and once at Indiana University, Bloomington. I also own a copy of the HBO film, which I’ve seen a couple times. Theater is, honestly, not my field of expertise. I enjoy going to some plays, but it’s not something I seek out on a regular basis. That said, I’ve always had a special place for The Laramie Project in my heart. The play makes the persuasive argument that Laramie needs to own the crime—that trying to deny the crime or trying to forget the crime doesn’t work.
The reason we remember Shakespeare today is because it still generates conversations about people, places, history, and ideas. This is why The Laramie Project works—it creates fertile ground for dialogue about what kind of people we are, what kind of society we want to be, and the possibilities for greatness.
Conceptually the idea of revisiting the play is a good one: it’s an opportunity to revisit Laramie and see if and how the community has changed—as well as a mirror to let us see how we, in other communities, have changed. However it is fraught with dangers—many sequels turn out to be shadows and farces of the original—hardly worth the time to watch.
Not everything has been great: ABC News and its reporter, Elizabeth Vargas, are skewered—rightfully so. The Matthew Shepard Act has not yet passed Congress. The University of Wyoming is blamed for taking over ten years to pass some form of domestic partnership benefits—albeit still delayed for fiscal reasons.
But as one voice in the play points out, that of Matthew Shepard’s advisor, Jon Peacock (coincidentally, the person I knew best), measuring success by laws passed is not the best way to measure change.
The fact is that Matthew Shepard’s murder has changed the conversation. It’s true that Wyoming doesn’t have same sex marriage—but it was a couple of Republicans in the State House who sank the amendment to the Wyoming Constitution that would have banned recognition of same sex marriages.
Two of the strongest moments in the epilogue come when interviews with Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, Matthew Shepard’s murderers, are presented. The interviews are haunting. It’s tough listening to what they have to say about the crime they committed—but as Father Roger Schmit points out in the original play, and is quoted in the epilogue:
I think right now our most important teachers must be Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. They have to be our teachers. How did you learn? What did we as a society do to teach you that? See, I don’t know if many people will let them be their teachers. I think it would be wonderful if the judge said: “In addition to your sentence, you must tell your story, you must tell your story.”
As I close out my thoughts about the epilogue, I want to thank Moisés Kaufman for doing an outstanding job with the original and the sequel. I think that The Laramie Project has had an amazing impact on the conversation—magnifying the efforts of Dennis and Judy Shepard.
There was, in fact, one outstanding moment of political clarity in the play. During the epilogue, the current governor of Wyoming, Dave Freudenthal, is interviewed. At the reading I saw in Denver, the part of Governor Fruedenthal was read by one Bill Ritter—who is the Governor of Colorado.
The Meaning of Matthew
I read Judy Shepard’s new book, The Meaning of Matthew, (TC; BN; Amazon: US, UK, DE) while in Laramie. It was actually the first thing I bought while in town—I intentionally waited to buy it until I got to Laramie and I made sure to read it while there.
Make no mistake, it’s a rough read emotionally—but it is well written, constructed, and thought-out. I’m grateful to Judy for sharing her story with me and with society. As she sets out at the beginning of her book:
Memories can be tricky. They care often influenced by an individual’s life experiences both before and after any event. I have tried to verify my memories with trial transcripts and other written materials as well conversations with those involved in the memories themselves. There may be some things that are remembered differently by others, but I have put my truth on these pages.
You knew him as Matthew. To us he was Matt. I have tried to reconcile the two within these pages. It would be unfair to Matt if only Matthew’s story was told. Matt was so much more than “Matthew Shepard, the gay twenty-one-year-old University of Wyoming college student.” He had a family and countless friends. He had a life before the night he was tied to that fence.
This is a point often lost—and I’ll admit that I am guilty of the implicit crime of trying to own Matthew Shepard. He’s not Matt to me, he’s Matthew—he’s the individual whose murder had a profound impact. I’ve covered it multiple times before—talking about how his life and his death changed me. Even today, 11 years after the fact, it still matters to me; it still resonates and makes me reflect.
The precise location where Matthew was tied to that fence is on private land and is, essentially, off limits. I have a rough idea where it is though, and while in Laramie I drove out to my rough idea and thought about how pointless it all is—nobody should ever be murdered, tied to a fence, and left to die. Nobody should be murdered—disliking somebody and their behavior should never escalate to murder. I was there during daylight—it’s not really that isolated, nearby housing, nearby a Walmart (which admittedly was not there 11 years ago), and overlooking Laramie.
All of this is rambling: I’m not really sure I can ever be completely coherent when it comes to the subject of Matthew Shepard, but what I can say, coherently, is that Judy Shepard’s book is fantastic.
I can’t imagine how difficult it was for her husband and her to share the death of her son with not just her relatives but also the world. They were in an information vacuum: traveling from the Middle East in a rush, unable to receive updates about their son’s health, unknowing of the impact that their Matt (our Matthew) was having—only glimpsing the news on the cover of newspapers for sale in the Minneapolis – St. Paul Airport.
The book walks us through Matt and Matthew’s life and fills in a number of holes that I hadn’t been completely aware were unfilled—giving perspective to the chaos that enveloped the entire situation, plus giving more details about his life and times.
It’s a great compliment to the book written by Matt’s friend, Romaine Patterson, The Whole World Was Watching—both speak about Matt, and both acknowledge that memories play tricks—that different perspectives and life experiences shade clarity.
Matthew Shepard matters
One question that may never be resolved is why Matthew’s murder had the impact that it did. Hate crimes—gay hate crimes—occurred before and after Matthew, yet his resonates; his motivates people; his name is the one associated with the Hate Crimes legislation before the US Congress: Matthew Shepard matters.
I’ve read some speculation—that it was his diminutive nature, his blond hair, and his whiteness that helped make his murder matter. There is clearly racial bias in the news media and thusly I suspect there are some elements of truth to this perspective. However fully exploring that is something best left to media or cultural studies types; I choose to instead focus on the fact that eleven years after his murder: Matthew Shepard matters.
Although I’ve often wished that I didn’t know Matthew Shepard’s name and I wish Laramie hadn’t made the news, the fact is that I do know his name and, ultimately, Matthew Shepard matters and it’s impossible for me to ignore the impact that he’s had, directly and indirectly, on my life.