The Laramie Project: How Listening Can Change the World

On October 6, 1998, a 21-year old college student was brutally murdered. His battered body, bleeding from a gash in his skull, was tied to a fence not far from a mountain hiking trail. His attackers left him for dead, but he clung to life; the only bloodless areas on his face were the streaks left by his tears. He survived for about five days before succumbing to his wounds. The gruesome inhumanity of the crime shocked the US and garnered world-wide attention. Adding to the horror were the bare facts of the case: the victim, Matthew Shepard, was a gay man, the crime took place in Laramie, Wyoming, and the perpetrators fit the profile of homophobic cowboys.

It was a story made for the headlines and it was indeed a scandal that captivated the world. The press descended on Laramie with a ferocity that stunned the residents. The main story-line quickly emerged: something like this was bound to happen in a place like Laramie. The press capitalized on the stereotype of the gay-hating cowboy, all the evidence pointing to Matthew’s murder being a hate crime. What could be more obvious?

Beyond Stereotypes

While that story dominated the nightly news in the days following the assault, Moisés Kaufman, the co-founder of an innovative theater company in New York City, wasn’t buying it. He knew that the simple good guy/ bad guy narrative may garner large audiences, but it certainly does not do justice to reality. Kaufman’s company, Tectonic Theater Project, is dedicated to using theater to explore “social, political, and human issues that affect us all” and Matthew’s murder was certainly all that. While the media seemed to have all the answers, Kaufman wanted to ask questions: Why was it Matthew Shepard who was killed and not someone else? Why did it happen in Laramie, WY and not somewhere else?

As Kaufman explained, “The idea of listening to the citizens [of Laramie] talk really interested me.” And so, he and members of Tectonic traveled from New York City to Laramie six times over a year and a half and conducted over two hundred interviews. They shaped their notes and recordings into The Laramie Project. At no point in the play is the horror, injustice and tragedy of the crime in dispute. But it nevertheless emerges as a complicated story.

Recognizing Fake News

Most true stories are complicated, especially the ones about violence. The neat and tidy ones, with easily recognizable good guys and bad guys, are not the true ones. The unvarnished truth is that violence is an equal opportunity parasite; it attaches itself to the good and bad alike. But that story is harder to tell in a headline or soundbite. To its credit, The Laramie Project does not varnish or dress up what they heard so their story would fit stereotypes. Remember that the questions that motivated Kaufman had nothing to do with figuring out who to blame. His questions were “why” questions not “who” questions. “Why” questions moved him beyond the quick, down and dirty answer that motivated the headlines. As Jon Peacock, Matthew’s adviser at the University of Wyoming, explains in the play, “More and more details came in about the sheer brutality, um, motivations, how this happened. And then quite frankly the media descended and there was no time to reflect on it anymore.”

When a news story confirms your expectations, you can bet that it’s functioning as fake news for you. If you hear it and think, “I knew it!” or “I saw that coming!”, and you experience a surge of self-righteousness, then the story is just reinforcing what you already know about who the good guys and bad guys are. I’m not saying that there aren’t good guys and bad guys – of course there are! What I am saying is that when we believe that we are always the good guys we can fail to see how sometimes we are good people doing bad things without realizing it. So when we hear a story that reinforces the goodness of our side, it’s a good time to take a page from Kaufman’s book and ask a few “why” questions.

What the Scapegoat Knows

Kaufman could easily have reacted to the news of Matthew Shepard’s murder with a surge of self-righteousness. Because hearing that a gay man was murdered did not come as a surprise to the gay community. Being openly gay was still risky beyond measure in 1998. Until only recently, sexual orientation was sufficient legal grounds for being fired or refused housing, but that was hardly the worst of it. Bullying, abuse, intimidation and open violence against LGBTQ people forced the entire community underground until well into the 1960s and 70s. Something called “homosexual panic” was classified as a mental disorder from 1952 until 1980 and was used successfully as a murder defense. Matthew Shepard’s murder brought much needed world-wide attention to the blatant scapegoating of an entire group of people based on lies and irrational fears.

Why aren’t I calling out the gay community for its “I knew it!” response to Matthew Shepard’s murder? Because theirs was not an “I knew it!” with an exclamation point. It was a grief-stricken “I knew it” that didn’t evoke self-righteousness but tears, frustration and anger. It was an expression of the hard-won knowledge of a group that had been, and continues to be, the culture’s scapegoat. It was the voice of the scapegoat insisting on their humanity, challenging the justifications used to abuse, wound, expel and kill them.

Gay Lives Matter

One reflection on the murder helps us learn to hear the voice of the scapegoat amid the justifications for violence. They are the words of Sherry Johnson, an assistant administrator at the University and the wife of a highway patrolman. She is musing about the different media response to Matthew’s death and another death that happened at around the same time, the death of a highway patrolman in a traffic accident. Here’s what she says:

Now when I first found out [about Matthew Shepard’s murder], I just thought it was horrible. I just, I can’t… Nobody deserves that! I don’t care who ya are.

But, the other thing, that was not brought out – at the same time that happened, that patrolman was killed. And there was nothing. Nothing. They didn’t say anything about the old man that killed him. It was just a little piece in the paper. And we lost one of our guys.

And a lot of it is my feeling that the media is portraying Matthew Shepard as a saint. And making him as a martyr. And I don’t think he was. I don’t think he was that pure… What’s the difference if you’re gay? A hate crime is a hate crime. If you murder somebody you hate ‘em. It has nothing to do with if you’re gay or a prostitute or whatever. I don’t understand. I don’t understand.

“What’s the difference if you’re gay?” is a sentiment used then and now to silence the voice of the scapegoat. It’s the motivation behind the retort to “Black Lives Matter” that “All lives matter”. Why should we care more about one death than any other, more about a gay man than a highway patrolman, more about a black man than a police officer? Of course, we shouldn’t. Sherry Johnson is quite right about that. A death is always a loss and a murder is always a tragedy. And she is also right to point out that it’s wrong to turn Matthew into a saint. He was a human being, not a saint. And more importantly, he was a human being, not a monster. According to human rights lawyer Eric Berkowitz, from early in the 20th century, medical experts explained the desires of gay men not only as a perversion but in terms of aggression.  He explains that “’Homosexual’, came to be synonymous with child molester, sex criminal and sexual psychopath. There was never evidence that gay men were more sexually violent than heterosexuals, but facts rarely impede a compelling myth.” (Again, the parallel to the stereotyping of black men is impossible to ignore.)

The Difference Listening Makes

But the world finally, perhaps irrevocably, saw Matthew Shepard’s death as the murder of a human being, not a monster. But this play, even as it grieves the violence done to Matthew, will not let us demonize the two perpetrators or the town that reared them. Fyodor Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist whose death sentence was commuted to a prison term as he faced the firing squad, wrote extensively about “collective guilt”. Jennifer Wilson, a postdoctoral fellow in Russian literature at the University of Pennsylvania, recently connected Dostoevsky’s fiction with the current movement for prison reform. She contends that the concern for the wrongly imprisoned is a step in the right direction but does not go far enough. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s plot turns on the search for which if the sons is responsible for their father’s murder. Dmitri, the falsely accused eldest son, nevertheless confesses his responsibility because “everyone is guilty for everyone else.” What Wilson says about Dostoevsky’s belief could also be said of The Laramie Project, “It is not only our task to support the innocent or wrongly convicted but also to recognize the humanity of the guilty and the shared sense of responsibility that we have for one another.”

The question that hovers over the end of the play is the question that guided Derek Bertelsen’s direction of The Laramie Project for Chicago’s AstonRep Theater: Is this something that could happen again? Bertelsen knows, as well as you and I, that though things have improved in many ways for LGBTQ people, this is unfortunately a rhetorical question. The LGBTQ community still suffers terrible emotional trauma and physical violence. Horrendous proof of this happened only two years ago on June 12, 2016, when 49 people and 53 others were wounded in the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Human beings continue to be treated like monsters who can be beaten, choked, shot and left for dead without remorse. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Listening can change us and change the world. That hope is what compelled Kaufman and the members of Tectonic to go to Laramie, WY not to judge or condemn, but to listen. That hope is the reason that Bertelsen and the AstonRep are staging this play for Chicago audiences, so we can listen to the people of Laramie and in so doing, encounter the true story of our shared responsibility for one another.

Suzanne Ross will be leading a post show discuss of AstonRep Theatre Company’s production of The Laramie Project immediately following the Sunday, June 10, 3:30 p.m. matinee on the West Stage of the Raven Theatre , 6157 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60660. Tickets are available for purchase online.

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