“Somebody so small in stature sure made a huge difference in the whole dang world”
The deputy who found Matthew Shepard
Nothing tells a story quite like the words of the real people who lived it. The old saying that truth is stranger than fiction rings true when you take the words of real people, bounce them off one another, and weave a tapestry that presents a more complete picture of a given place at a given time. Stories build character arcs, have climaxes, and come to resolutions. Life doesn’t; it just moves on, and there are at least as many perceptions of any single event as there were people who witnessed it.
This is the beauty of The Laramie Project. In 1998, Matthew Shepard was tortured and murdered in the small town of Laramie, Wyoming. The reason: Matthew was gay. It was a horrifying scene that brought national attention to the small community, and the residents had to come to terms with their own identities, had to confront themselves with the uncomfortable reality that something about their way of life led to two of their own brutally murdering this poor young boy. The Laramie Project is a play written from their own words, telling their story, and in many ways it helped the community heal its wounds.
But time marches on. Ten years later, the group that wrote Laramie returned to see how the town had changed in the past decade. They found a town that had grown economically, but, tragically, had infused lies and excuses into their healing process. In The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, we are confronted with the uncomfortable truth that, despite the notes of hope in the original play, Matthew’s death appears to have been in vain.
The problem is the power of story. We learn that, at some point, the locals chose to make excuses as part of their healing process. In classic style, it was much easier to blame the victim rather than confront the ugly truth about two of their own sons. It was easier to accept that the two murderers were meth addicts, and that Matthew’s death was the unfortunate result of a drug deal gone bad, not homophobia at its brutal worst. So if Matthew was a drug dealer, his murder becomes acceptable. The fact there was no evidence to support such a claim makes no difference.
A large portion of the piece is devoted to the power of rumor and story. The more a rumor spreads, the more the truth gets removed, until it becomes a piece of common knowledge, none of which is actually true. And yet, in the perception of those who tell the story, it is true. It is their perception that matters. The town, they say, has “moved on.” They did so by forgetting the painful truth.
Yet, the power of story can be used for good. This new sequel goes on to paint a picture of multiple human rights victories, all won partially because of the legacy of Matthew Shepard. We see resolutions to define marriage as only between a man and a woman defeated because a conservative legislator invokes the name of Matthew Shepard. We see hate crimes legislation passed, albeit after a long time, due to the sacrifice of Matthew Shepard. We even see Russell Johnson, one of Matthew’s murderers accept responsibility and exhibit true contrition. He, too, had to face ugly things about himself, but he did it bravely and truthfully.
Truth becomes myth and myth becomes truth. This is something the Pagan community easily understands. Mythology can help a community by giving it examples to emulate, or it can hurt a community by providing false excuses that take away personal responsibility for reprehensible actions. Religion- any religion- is similar. Johnson owned up to his actions, re-telling a more accurate story. The people of Laramie, apparently, chose the other route. But the story doesn’t end there.
I happened to see The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later on our local Gay Pride weekend. The next day I watched the parade with a friend who had been coming for over 25 years. He told stories about fighting the city for the right to parade, suing the police department to make them provide protection, and fighting the ever-present corral of protestors screaming about how far into Hell all of them were going. Today, the parade is a huge community event, part of the fabric of the city. The school board, local politicians, and the fire department all had prominent floats. A variety of Christian churches march with the drag queens. The police department now offers full support. They are a highlight of the parade, with cruisers from multiple decades blaring their sirens in support of the community. The protestors are now one guy standing alone, holding a sign that makes no sense.
Matthew Shepard will never see it. The people of Laramie may never see it. But a new story is being written. And the young man who was tied to a fence will always be one of the authors of this new story.