Content Warning: Homophobia, murder, hate crimes. Titles of each section come from Danez Smith’s poem, “little prayer.”
i. “let ruin end here”
This past Friday, I forced myself to create an image in my mind. It’s an image that I never want to look at, but I don’t have a choice: After I encountered it early in my adolescence, it’s never gone away. It’s an image too much to bear, sometimes. But it’s always there, in the back of my mind, a terrifying final destination. A warning that for people like me, life isn’t necessarily a guarantee. It’s the image of Matthew Shepard, tied to a fence in the middle of nowhere by his murderers, bloodied to the point of not being recognizably human. Dying.
Matthew Shepard was a gay student at the University of Wyoming who was beaten, tortured, and murdered by two men on October 6, 1998. His murderers tied him up to a fence and left him to die; they later claimed that he had come onto them sexually, using a “gay panic” defense for their extreme actions. The brutality of his murder, combined with images of his white face, was immediately sensationalized by the media and the 24-hour news cycle. His death sparked one of the first truly national conversations about homophobia in America, making many people question for the first time how their society could lead to such a heinous death.
Since 1998, the story of Matthew Shepard is one that’s no longer just about him. It’s now also about the millions of people (straight and LGBTQ) who saw his photo in the news, or took the time to listen to his story. Just as the story of Emmett Till’s murder eventually became a legend that galvanized the Black Civil Rights Movement, the story of Matthew Shepard’s murder offered new mythology for the LGBTQ rights movement to latch onto: A devastating example of how far homophobia could go, a call for humanity and kindness. Directly after his death, candle vigils were held across America, a televised memorial was led by Ellen DeGeneres, and protests were held in Laramie, Wyoming where Shepard lived. In the past two decades, his name and face continually evoked in the fight for LGBTQ acceptance: the Matthew Shepard Foundation seeks to “empower individuals to embrace human dignity and diversity.” In 2009, President Barack Obama passed the Matthew Shepard Act to expand federal hate crime laws to include gender and sexuality. You could even hear his name invoked by drag queen Nina West on “Rupaul’s Drag Race” in an attempt to educate a national audience about what has now become a vital part of LGBTQ history.
But perhaps nothing has kept Matthew Shepard’s death more present in the American consciousness than the play “The Laramie Project.” Seeking to understand how people were reacting to Shepard’s death, Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie, Wyoming to interview as many people as they could about either their direct connection to Shepard or their feelings about the murder. The company then staged transcripts from these interviews, embodying the people who they had taken the time to listen to. The play has become one of the most produced by high schools and colleges across the country within the past two decades. All across America, Matthew Shepard’s story was resurrected again and again, in a constant ritual. When a community stages “The Laramie Project,” they’re hoping to try to stop more people from having Matthew Shepard’s fate.
But something also happens when a community stages “The Laramie Project,” if unintentionally. They’re not just resurrecting him. They’re forcing us to witness his death, over and over again. That’s exactly what happened this past Friday. As the dramaturg for the Wesleyan Theater Department’s production of “The Laramie Project,” I was forcing myself to sit down in the theater and witness the death of Matthew Shepard. Even though “The Laramie Project” has a considerable amount of restraint in literally not embodying Shepard on the stage, I was still creating the image of his battered face in my mind. I closed my eyes, but could still hear the actors describing him. Behind my closed eyelids, I couldn’t stop seeing him dying.
ii. “let him find honey / where there was once a slaughter”
I was born only seven months after Matthew Shepard’s death, so I was unconsciously entering into the American culture that was both complicit and outraged at his death. Just as Laramie, Wyoming was a university town that prided itself on a “live and let live” libertarianism, my hometown of Alexandria, Virginia was just a few minutes outside Washington, D.C. and prided itself on a metropolitan progressivism. But both Laramie and Alexandria contain insidious homophobia lurking under their seemingly carefree attitudes about gay identity. The Catholic church I was raised in preached the values of loving others, but still went out of its way to ingrain in me that “marriage is between one man and one woman,” and that the gay lifestyle was something that was fundamentally unacceptable. My colleagues in school would say that they were okay with gay people, but didn’t understand why gay high schoolers didn’t wait to come out at college to make things easier for everyone. My own conservative family would support and love me, but would not see anything wrong with voting for political candidates who would casually strip away LGBTQ rights. Notably, many of them voted for Donald Trump.
All these microaggressions, all the cruel jokes that I noticed but nobody else didn’t, all of the prayers I was indoctrinated into because I didn’t know any better, created a mosaic of shame that only distance and time has made me able to truly see. I love my town, my high school, my family, my church. But despite their best efforts, their love for me could only stretch so far: there were limits to how much they could understand what it was like to be someone like me. Growing up, being gay had very clear consequences: it meant excommunication from the church community, it meant distance away from everybody else in my life, it meant walking around with a target on your back for the rest of your life.
And after I learned about Matthew Shepard in eighth grade, being gay at that age meant dying. The first time I heard about Matthew Shepard was from my mom: she mentioned him after taking me to see a play that had a gay romance in it, stating that the show was perhaps responding to the late 1990s culture that led to Matthew Shepard’s death. The first time I witnessed two people of the same gender kissing was immediately attached to the paranoia that something awful was going to happen to them. And at the time, I had never met gay people who were my age: Matthew Shepard was the only representation I had of a gay teenager, and his fate was the only one that seemed possible. As I slowly, and anxiously, realized I was gay, it seemed like a death sentence to me. I didn’t know that it was possible to be gay, and be a teenager, and to live. The few adult gay people I had met seemed like survivors, and I didn’t know if I could get through the other side the way that they had. I didn’t know that my existence was possible, I didn’t know how I could matter without dying first. I didn’t know how I could become anything other than what Matthew Shepard had become: a tragic story that could inspire others but not actually save the tragic person.
I’m sharing all of this because I know I’m not the only one who has this relationship with Matthew Shepard. Talking to LGBTQ professors who came of age around the time of Matthew Shepard’s murder, they shared their terror at realizing, “That could’ve been me.” His story was inescapable, in that sense. How strange it is that his story is still inescapable for me: that this person as the vision of gayness as a death sentence could still feel palpably real years after his murder. Even when I went to high school and for the first time met openly gay teenagers, the fear of death because of my identity remained pervasive. In 2014, I read over and over again the transgender teenager Leelah Alcorn’s suicide note that was posted to Tumblr that asked that her death mean something. In 2016, after attending the Friday Pride Festival in Washington, D.C., 49 people (mostly gay Latino men) were murdered at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. When I attend Pride now, I always make sure I have an escape route if something were to happen. I try to tell myself, “that couldn’t happen to me” and ease my worries. But it happened to Matthew Shepard. It could always happen to me.
It is of pivotal importance that we never forget what happened to Matthew Shepard: Denying the truth of what happened to him, because it makes us uncomfortable or because it is too hard to watch, would be a form of historical revisionism or even erasure. The power of “The Laramie Project” comes from proving that a community can unite and see a gay person’s humanity, even under the most horrifying of circumstances. And this kind of work is perhaps most necessary for the straight and cisgender audiences who witness “The Laramie Project,” who might have never thought about the paranoia and fear that make up my everyday life.
But if the death of LGBTQ people are the only stories that are told about LGBTQ life, are we condemning them to tragedy? Are we limiting the imagination of people to only conceptualize LGBTQ people as anything other than history to be learned? Has Matthew Shepard’s battered body become a blunt tool to impart the lessons of empathy and humanity? My greatest fear is that in telling the story of Matthew Shepard’s death, which is a necessary one, we cause his story to be the only story for people to understand LGBTQ people. My greatest fear is that what Matthew Shepard meant to me, he will mean to more gay people.
iii. “let him enter the lion’s cage / & find a field of lilacs”
In my dreams, I imagine an alternate fate for Matthew Shepard. I see his murderers climb into their truck, and their headlights blend into the lights glimmering on the distant horizon. I see him struggling, bound against the fence, pulling and scratching and shaking, trying to set himself free. I can hear his moans of pain. They’re not words, they’re just attempts to be heard. I can hear him screaming into the wind hoping that someone, anyone, will save him.
And that’s exactly what I do. I rush over to him, whispering that everything will be okay. I take the pistol that was used to whip his body, and use it to liberate his hands from the binds to the fence. I take off my shirt and wrap it around his body, doing anything to cover up the wounds and help stop the bleeding. Maybe I make a joke about me being so intimate with him, and in the pulsing night, maybe I can see the tiniest glimmer of a smile. Maybe I can look into his eyes, and know that his fear of death is fading. Something about the situation gives me physical strength I know I don’t have. I lift him up. And together, we limp away from the fence, into the darkness.
It’s a comforting image. It’s the story I wish I could tell about Matthew Shepard. It’s the story that I wish could’ve happened. But when I wake up from this dream, I know it’s a fantasy of escape I’ve internalized from other pieces of art that try to imagine a life outside of the death that’s an inevitability for historical traumas. It’s Paula Vogel in her play “Indecent,” imagining two lesbian women running out of a Holocaust concentration camp, out of reality, out of the theater. It’s Saidiya Hartman in “Venus in Two Acts,” imagining two slave girls on the Middle Passage cradling each other comforting each other. But even Hartman must admit that this romance of intimacy is a fantastical consolation for lives that never valued, never loved the way they needed to be. “I could not have arrived at another conclusion,” she writes. “So it was better to leave them as I had found them. Two girls, alone.”
In the end, I’m forced to let go of my dream. I’m forced to leave Shepard as I found him, alone and tied to the fence. I’m forced to create his death in my imagination. I’m forced to admit the unbearable: Matthew Shepard will never be saved. But I wonder about where my imagination could take me, what opportunities and love are possible for me that can’t exist for Shepard. I can’t save Matthew Shepard’s life. But can I save my own?
iv. “let this be the healing / & if not let it be”
I knew all the words of “The Laramie Project” going into last Friday’s performance. But other people didn’t. Some of the people who sat down in their seats had no idea that Matthew Shepard existed before seeing the show; they had no idea the burden of personal history I felt when watching the show. At intermission, two of my LGBTQ friends left the show. The weight of their personal histories was too much to bear, and watching the show had been too devastating for them. I understood, and had wanted to leave the show for my own safety a few times myself. But I stayed, holding my hands together in prayer. Instead of anything I learned from the Catholic church, I recited the last lines of Danez Smith’s poem “little prayer” over and over again. “let this be the healing / & if not let it be.” I wasn’t going to save Matthew Shepard. But I could listen to his life, which was less of a story and more of a project, as the Tectonic Theater Company understood. A project that will never be complete; a wound that will never be healed. It hurt to witness that, but there was also a power in watching other people witness it with me.
“I can’t believe this actually happened,” said someone behind me to their friends during intermission. In that moment, I envied them: I wish I could’ve found Shepard’s death unbelievable instead of inevitable. Initially, I envied their privilege in not knowing about the state of fear which I had made home during my adolescence. But there was another part of me that was happy for them, and for people like them: Maybe Matthew Shepard’s story wasn’t the story of LGBTQ life they had been taught. Maybe the stories of LGBTQ life had surpassed the limited narrative I had told myself. Maybe they could imagine intimacy, joy, and a long life for him. Maybe they couldn’t believe Shepard’s death had happened, because they could believe in another story for a gay man. For me.
Nathan Pugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.