Friday, August 6, 2010

May we never forget

Last night we went to South Puget Sound Community College to see “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.” I went as a critic; my review will appear in The Olympian and The News Tribune next Friday. I also went as a member of PFLAG, because PFLAG is tabling the event. And I went as one might go to the grave of a loved one because “The Laramie Project” is a memorial to Matthew Shepherd and to all victims of anti-GLBTQ hate crimes, and we lost our son to anti-GLBTQ violence in 1995, three years before Matthew’s death. Our son Bill was 17.

On October 6, 1998 Matthew Shepard was beaten and left to die tied to a fence in the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. He died six days later. A month after the murder members of Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie and conducted interviews with the people of the town. From these interviews they wrote the play “The Laramie Project.” The “characters” in the play were the actual members of the Tectonic cast talking about their experiences and the citizens of Laramie they interviewed. Every word was taken directly from the transcripts of their interviews.

Ten years later, Moisés Kaufman and members of Tectonic Theater Project returned to Laramie to find out what has happened over the last 10 years, resulting in this new play.

As a critic, I thought the play was too didactic. Kaufman should have edited out much of the lecturing that was done by the Tectonic cast members and the citizens of Laramie. But as a human being living in a world that is still far from safe for people who are not members of the privileged majority – meaning not only gays, lesbians, bi-sexuals and transgenders but also racial and ethnic minorities and those whose religion or culture is different than the so-called norm – I believe the lessons implicit in the production are important and the events depicted should never be forgotten. 

It is not my purpose to review the play here. Rather, I want to make a few remarks about the implications of the play. The major questions posed are can Laramie be seen as representative of the whole country – in other words, are they just like us, and have we progressed in our attitude and our laws since Matthew Shepherd’s death. Cast members and the people of Laramie repeatedly bemoaned the fact that after 10 years the federal government had still not passed federal hate crimes legislation that includes GLBTQ persons as a protected class. They pointed out that hate crimes have not lessened but have increased, and like a town full of ostriches a large part of the population of Laramie has embraced a kind of popular cover-up of the crime saying it was a drug-induced robbery gone sour and not a hate crime at all.

Since the play was first presented we have at least made one improvement. Federal hate crime legislation has been enacted into law and signed by President Obama. The bill was named after Matthew Shepherd and James Byrd Jr., a black man who was chained to the back of a pickup truck in Jasper, Texas, and dragged to his death. My wife and I were lucky enough to be on the guest list at the White House for the celebration of the signing of the hate crimes law. While there we talked to Matthew Shepherd’s family, his parents, Judy and Dennis, and his brother, Logan. For them as for us the events of more than a decade ago are as fresh as if they happened yesterday. It was a proud and momentous occasion, but not necessarily a signal of major advances in civil rights. There is hope, however. Just this week a federal judge overturned as unconstitutional the dreaded Proposition 8 in California, which outlawed same sex marriage. But the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which does for the nation what Prop 8 did for California, is still the law of the land; gays still cannot serve openly in the U.S. military; hate crimes have not abated in the least, and every time GLBTQ rights have been put to the vote anywhere in the United States the majority of voters have voted against our rights. We still have a long way to go.

The play included an interview with one of the murderers, Aaron McKinney, who complained that after 10 years Judy Shepherd should just "shut the fuck up." Let us hope Judy Shepherd will never shut up.

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