Still fighting for Matthew Shepard

October 22, 2009

Erik Wallenberg reviews the world premiere of a unique play The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later.

ELEVEN YEARS after the brutal killing of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo., the creators of the play The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later are taking their message about homophobia in America worldwide.

On October 12, members of The Tectonic Theater Project (TTP) addressed a crowd in New York City's Lincoln Center--and their statements were sent around the world in a simultaneous webcast to over 150 theaters that were also performing dramatic readings of the new play. Actor Glenn Close addressed the crowd along with Judy Shepard, Matthew's mother, who has become an outspoken organizer and educator for gay rights since her sons murder.

Referencing "the last depression," TTP members noted that they were trying recreate "the same experience as the Federal Theater Project" over 70 years ago. The Federal Theater Project was a federally funded program during the Great Depression, a project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which paid out-of-work actors to stage public performances.

The WPA shows were staged at the same time in cities throughout the country, creating what TTP members called a "dialogue across the country about important social issues." The TTP hopes that their project can start a similar discussion--but this time all over the world, and this time about LGBT rights.

A scene from The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later as performed by the Tectonic Theater Project
A scene from The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later as performed by the Tectonic Theater Project (Betsy Adams)

The launching of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later is truly a stage-shaking event in the theater world--staging a premiere performance connected to theaters across the world has never been done before. What's more, the audiences were connected through a live Web feed to New York City, where the creators welcomed the audience and afterward took questions and comments sent by cell phones through Twitter.

At a time when the National Equality March for LGBT rights so successfully connected people in local areas to attend the march together and then to return home to organize in their congressional districts, these kinds of global connections offer more strength and innovation to organizing for progressive change.

IN ORDER to pull together this new play, TTP members returned to Laramie to interview many of the people from the original play. The climax comes in the second half of the reading when the producers secure an interview with one of the murderers who has so far not spoken to them.

The interview is a chilling indictment of a society that produces killers like him. In cold calculation, Aaron McKinney says, "Matt Shepard needed killing," and he goes on to say he has no regrets. During this tense conversation, his interviewer questions Aaron's decisions to tattoo "Trust no one" and swastikas on his arms.

The scene leaves the audience wondering what we need to do to educate and organize in our communities to create a different kind of society. So long as the LGBT community is systematically discriminated against and denied equal rights and protections under the law, we will have more Aaron McKinneys and more Matthew Shepards.

TTP members also interviewed the first openly gay member of the Wyoming state legislature, who gives a moving account of the fight to stop the passage of a statewide law equivalent to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). She recalls that many Democrats supported the act because of the "their conservative constituents," a position that sounds all too familiar to today's debate on the national level.

But the law was defeated because of two Republicans who spoke against "dividing the state with hateful laws." In addition, one of the police officers in charge of the initial investigation talks about his transformation from a "homophobe," and wonders "why it had to take Matthew's death to turn me 180 degrees."

These moving stories give a sense of how change on a greater scale can happen and is possible in even the worst situations. But in the play, Judy Sheppard notes that, while things have changed at the grassroots, "Ten years later, nothing has changed at the legislative level." There has been no repeal of DOMA or the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, and still no hate crimes bill.

When the interviewer asks Judy, "Don't you think it's time to let go. Aren't you keeping him [Matthew] alive with this," Judy replies simply, "Of course I am." Her determination is a sight to behold.

And that's determination that needs to continue and spread in order for real change to take hold. The University of Wyoming finally instituted a domestic partner benefits program after 10 years of faculty and staff organizing, but as one of the faculty members noted, now it's not been funded because of the economic crisis.

So they are still waiting, still organizing. Obama has yet to take action to repeal DOMA and "don't ask, don't tell," but the recent National Equality March on Washington, and the world premiere of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later and all of the publicity, pressure and organizing that they have created, have thrust these issues back into the national spotlight. What a fitting tribute to Matthew Shepard. Go out and see the play and take inspiration to organize for equality in your community.

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