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Jackrabbit's Story

This is just a complete recounting of my first posts about my memory of both the Shepard murder and The Laramie Project, presented in chronological order to make them easier to read.  You can do a search for the tag "personal memory" to read the original posts if you'd like.

I chose to include my first two posts setting up the project just go give the full context of why I felt the need to write this story in the first place, and also because it fills out the narrative. For the sake of continuity, however, I have chosen not to include the two "hindsight" posts and analysis  simply because the analysis sort of interrupts the continuity of the story.  But I'd suggest reading those three posts if you want to see what got left out of this narrative, what I didn't remember right, or I was too embarrassed to mention.


First Thoughts: It's More than Just a "Project"
[Originally published Nov. 3, 2009]

I guess a good way of explaining why I felt the need to start a weblog about The Laramie Project would be with an anecdote.  I was walking with a friend to grab some dinner a few weeks ago when he cheerfully replied to something I said with the quip, "Well, tie me to a fence and pistol-whip me."  I felt like he slugged me in the stomach.  To my friend, who is an out gay male, that image is little more than a cultural reference used just a little too casually among his like-minded friends.  To me, I can't see that image in my head without seeing Matt Shepard's face right in front of me and revisiting everything that happened afterward.    My friend had no clue how badly that quip shocked me because at the time, I had never told him that I was there.

You see,  I am one of thousands of media casualties left over from the journalistic onslaught in Laramie from 1998 to 1999, when we were caught in the crossfire of journalists, protestors, and pundits who descended on our campus and consumed our lives. I was a freshman in college in Laramie, Wyoming when Matthew Shepard was beaten to death;  Matt and I never knew each other-- we merely shared a co-incidence of friends-- but his death, and the media conflagration and protests that followed, defined my early adulthood.  Whether I like it or not, Matt Shepard changed my politics, my morals, and my sense of identity in ways I'm still trying to sort out.  And every time that event is invoked, it brings up the angst and personal trauma of my freshman year back in my face, and the shock of it paralyzes me.

As you imagine, this makes The Laramie Project nearly impossible to watch.  I've only put myself through two performances of the original version, Tectonic Theater's Laramie performance in 2000 and a university production in 2006;  both times I swore I'd never do it again because  I keep having panic attacks.  And yet, I'm obsessed with this play in ways I can't even begin to understand.  I can't watch it without bawling, but I've taught it to my freshman for three years running now.  And I keep reading all the secondary literature on the play even though I can't bring myself to watch the HBO movie.

I more or less forced myself to go to a local production of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later in Appalachia on October 12 after some chatting with the local director and the cast.  The performance was beyond amazing; the way that the cast resonated with their characters was electrifying.  It has been three weeks now since the revelations of the new addition, and I am still reeling.  I really don't know what to do with everything I'm trying to think through.    After all the personal growth and self-reflection this play has caused me to undergo, I should think that I would owe Moises Kaufman and Tectonic Theater my gratitude.  So why on earth do I resent it so damn much?

After the performance, I've tried to get these things out of my head and on paper, but I don't really seem to be getting anywhere with it-- and it's eating up all of the time I'm supposed to be using to, you know, be a graduate student.  I'm supposed to be studying for my exams.  I'm supposed to be learning French.  I'm supposed to be working on an article about a fifth-century Spanish priest nobody's heard of.  But instead, I just keep thinking about The Laramie Project-- and about memory, and the way we write history, and how the things we use to define ourselves and who we are is so vexed, so full of contingencies.   I also think about trauma, and the need to tell our stories in an attempt to make meaning from tragedy, and whether or not that's always a good thing.

So is that the project here?  I think maybe that's what I'm doing-- I need to tell my own story in an attempt to make sense of things that can't be grasped.  I need to think aloud about the work of art that has, to be blunt, messed with my freaking head for eight years now-- and not always in a good way.  And I think that I can't be the only one out there.

Actually, I know I'm not the only one.  To all of you out there who might be reading this: what is your relationship to this more-than-just-a-play?  What is your own attachment to it that defines (willingly or not) a part of who you are?  I've talked to LGBT people, actors, directors, and westerners who all have some kind of unique stake in the play as a part of one of its many communities.  Only a few of those people were interviewees for Tectonic or had any kind of attachment to Matt Shepard.  And yet, the play connects with them just as strongly, and it makes unfair demands of them just like it does of me.  What are your thoughts on how the play portrays, and questions, how Laramie sees itself-- and how does it do the same with how we construct our own communities and identities?  How does its nonfictional basis change how we relate to it as audience members?   And do you have the same sense of angst, or frustration or ambivalence, about this play that I do?

Why the hell am I doing this again?
[Originally published Nov. 11, 2009]

Okay, right now nobody is actively crawling this blog yet, which means that I'm more or less still blogging under the covers with a flashlight and nobody's listening.  So, in this moment of silence, I'm starting to panic: do I want to pull the plug on all this?   Do I really want to bear my soul to the cold scrutiny of the Internet?  Moreover, while the Internet is deep enough to allow some anonymity, Wyoming is not.  I swim in pretty shallow waters back there, and there's no good place to hide.  I can only run so fast before my own story catches up with me.  If I'm as honest with everyone as I really want to be, I will have to give everyone enough information to finally corner and catch the Jackrabbit if they want to.   And, while getting picked up by the ears and getting unmasked won't harm my career, it'd certainly strain my relationship with my parents, who would hardly approve of this sort of thing: good plainsmen don't air their family's dirty laundry for just anybody to hear.  So far, the risks seem to outweigh the reward. 

So please excuse me while I scream and wring my hands a little backstage before the curtain goes up.  Somebody tell me, why the hell am I doing this again, please?... 
It's a fair question.  Part of this exercise feels like shameless self-indulgence.  Hell, writing this post right now feels like shameless self-indulgence.  Maybe all I really want to do is pull out my hair and cry with an audience present.  Does that make me any different than the "Leave Britney Alone" kid, I wonder?  (Yeah.  He's more entertaining.)  Then there's the question of the story I have to tell.  A guy I didn't even know died, he died horribly, and I didn't really do anything after that-- well, not until this year, at least.  My relationship to the Matt Shepard case isn't anything special.  What's the point of telling that story here?  Who's going to care? 

Okay, now that I've basically spent a half an hour talking to myself  and can think everything over, I guess I would give three responses to my own question. 

First of all, I've been thinking about the first time I spilled my guts to a friend, who I'll call "Jim" for anonymity's sake; he was involved in a local production of Ten Years Later recently.  I'd never really told my story clear through to anyone before (just bits and pieces as needed), and I sort of blurted it all out to him over tea one morning on a broken picnic bench in the foyer of the Arts building.  "Jim" was not only very understanding, but he was able to speak into my ambivalence about the play in terms I had never thought about.   Why?  Because he felt a lot of the same things, too.  I can't even begin to tell you how good it felt to get that off my chest and finally begin to put the pieces together in a way that made sense. 

Next, I've been thinking back to something "Jim" told me that morning: everyone needs to be able to have a say in their own narrative.  When we lose the ability to control or at least speak into those narratives, it's like losing a piece of your identity.  What's my story?  Like it or not, a lot of my story is Laramie, and that's a narrative I've had no control over.  It's been exploded all over the media, it's been distorted by 20/20, and it's been defined by Tectonic Theater.  I've never actually spoken into, or spoken back to that narrative until a month ago.

Finally, I've been thinking about something the local director told me after the October 12 performance.  I had I confessed to her that, when I heard about the play awhile back, it felt like getting kicked in the gut.  The director later thanked me for saying that.   After the performance, she told me that it made her stop and think about the seriousness of what she does, how it speaks to the impact that theater can have on ordinary lives.  It both affirmed what she does for a living as well as reinforced the need to take it seriously.  Not bad for something I thought was going to totally offend her.

As I look back at these moments from the past month, I think these are the answer.  For one, I need to do this for other people who are in the same boat as me.  "Jim" helped me sort out things I had never been able to put into words just by letting me speak them aloud and affirm what I said.  I'd like to provide others  with a forum to do that.  Secondly, I need to do this for myself.  I need an opportunity to speak back into, and dialogue with, my own narrative for once, if for no other reason than to learn how to deal with the vertigo this play gives me every time I see it.  And, finally, I guess I need to do this for the theatric community.  Maybe, if we can all start to talk about the serious, life-changing experiences we all have had with this play, we can get a better sense of how theater of this type can interact with, interfere with, and even change the culture in which we live and the people we live with.  And that's nothing to sniff at, I guess.

That doesn't mean that the panic's gone, however;  I'm still a little nervous about losing my anonymity.  I know that I'll have to give up my Trickster persona and take my rabbit-mask off eventually.  My parents will eventually read this.  And I'll have to stop hiding, just like I've had to learn to stop hiding from this story.  But in the meantime, I suppose I'll just have to keep tumbling down this rabbit-hole to see where it goes.

Down the Rabbit-Hole: Jackrabbit's Story, Part 1
[Originally published Nov. 17, 2009]

So, part of what I've been trying to do as I think through The Laramie Project is to reflect back on how much I can actually remember of Matt's murder and the events before Tectonic Theater showed TLP in Larmie in 2000. To be honest, for a long time it was something I didn't like to think about; as a result, many memories are gone, and others are now colored by later events or Tectonic Theater's portrayal. Besides, it's hard to put myself in the shoes of an eighteen-year-old again. I have resisted actually telling this to anybody up to this point because it just felt too narcissistic and self-indulgent, but it's going to be hard to talk about the creation of memory and the constructed nature of identity in a play like TLP if I'm not willing to explain my own.

And part of it is the fact that I'm nervous.  I've had my fingers clamped around this story in a vise grip since 1998.  That grip didn't loosen up until 2006, and this year was the first time I tried setting it loose.  It's time to let this one go.  

Okay, so bear with me-- I've only ever explained all this clear through twice. I blundered through telling the whole thing to a very patient and understanding member of the TLP: Ten Years Later cast locally, and then I chatted with some other members of the cast a few days later. Now, I feel like I need share it to a larger audience.  I still don't feel totally ready to do this, but I have decided that personal blogs are supposed to be a little bit self-indulgent anyhow so what the heck. Here goes...
So what can I actually remember of those eighteen months? This is a harder question to answer—and as I dive down this rabbit-hole to see where it leads, I find that it has a lot of twists and turns. As it turns out, I can’t really separate Matt’s death out from a lot of the other, pivotal things that were going on in my life during that exact same time. Both of my older siblings lived in Laramie, and both of them were going through some devastatingly bad personal problems. I had just gotten into a serious relationship with the man whom I thought I was going to marry, and I had just met the man whom I would actually marry three years later, in the basement of the Fine Arts building. Finally, I had just started reading, through the prodding of my Honors English teacher, my first “dangerous” novel—Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita-- and it was seriously challenging my view on the world in ways I wasn't really ready for. I can’t really think about those weeks when I first learned Matt’s name without also thinking about all these other things as well.

The night that Matt was beaten, I’m pretty sure I was hanging out with my boyfriend; that’s all I really did back then. I didn’t learn of Matt's beating until everyone else, on Wednesday evening when I was in the Pokeskellar (a small convenience store beneath the dining hall) with some friends from White Hall. A guy who I think was from the Branding Iron walked in carrying a stack of lime green paper. He handed one to each of us.
“Have you heard?” He said, handing a sheet to me and my friends.
“Heard what?” One of us asked him. I don’t remember who.
“A college kid was beaten up last night.”
The guy left a stack of his advance story fliers in the Poke, and then he dashed out. We immediately started asking each other what small-town people always ask in times like that:
"Do you know him?"
"I don't think so. Do you?"
I looked down at the sheet with its grainy picture of his face in lime green, and that was the first time I had ever heard the name Matthew Shepard.

To be honest, I didn’t think much of it then; I was shocked, of course, but I was eighteen, solipsistic, and I was simply too used to blowing off other people's tragedy to let it all sink in. I know this is funny, but I remember naively thinking that what had happened to him was "urban" violence. (I came from a town of 4,000. To me, Laramie was enormous.) On Thursday or Friday—I can’t really remember when—as I biked back into campus after staying over at my boyfriend's place on Garfield, I noticed two things were different: one was the mass of satellite trucks parked on the corner of 15th and Grand. The other was that all the RA dorm windows down the side of White Hall were covered in yellow paper and green circles, the symbol that the LGBTA had adopted in support of Shepard. The atmosphere of the campus had completely changed overnight, and I wasn’t there to witness the transformation. I needed to know what was happening.

I went back to my dorm long enough to figure out that there was a rally planned that afternoon in Prexy’s Pasture. I snagged something to eat and went there, mostly just to figure out what the heck was going on. I must have passed several dozen students all wearing those yellow armbands when I cut through the Student Union to get to the meeting, and people were whispering words like “gay bashing” that didn’t quite make any sense to me yet. I don’t really remember much of the rally—just a dim recollection of a woman on a bullhorn, and the impression that the weather was so beautiful that it made everything feel surreal. As I stood off to one side, I heard somebody call my name, and I turned around to see a friend of mine from upstate standing right behind me.

I knew "Sascha" (not her real name) from high school speech and debate. She and I had met at the Cody speech meet my junior year, and she and I tended to hang out a lot with each other. I had only seen her once since I had gotten to campus, however— just the previous week, standing on the exact same spot when she was cavorting around Prexy’s Pasture decked out in red lipstick for a “Freak show” themed LGBTA booth at the campus club fair. This time, however, she walked up to me, grabbed me in a bear hug. She said, "my friend was murdered," or something like that, I'm not sure what but it shocked me nonetheless.  She was in total shock, and I don't think she had slept since Tuesday.  Then it sort of hit me: this wasn't just about the horror of what happened to her friend.  "Sascha" was a lesbian, and I think she was terrified.

I walked back through campus, this time with my eyes and ears open.  And as I talked to my other friends, some of whom were also in the LGBTA, I started realizing how many people I knew who knew him, how scared and confused they were, too. "Sascha," for instance, was a walking wreck for weeks. And that’s when it finally started sinking in through the isolated little shell of my own worries exactly how serious life had just suddenly become—when I saw my friends’ lives destroyed. Now when I listened to the details of the attack, I couldn't see Matt's face without also seeing their grief, and the reports of his injuries started to make me sick. It suddenly brought the seriousness of the situation to light in a way that a grainy picture on a piece of green paper couldn't.

As a reflect back on this, the one thing that really strikes me is that what finally made me understand the situation was the realization there was only one degree of separation between Matt and myself. And I don't think that makes me unique-- actually, I bet that a third of the campus was only one degree removed from him in one way or another, and I don't know how much different things would have been off-campus. That's part of what made this crime so unbelievably horrific-- the shock waves literally rippled through everyone in the community, connected as we all were through Matt, or the perpetrators, or the police who responded to the scene... It sort of makes me wonder now: is there really such a thing as a "stranger" in any community? In a sense, that connection is always there; the only difference is how thinly it gets stretched between one person and another and whether that connection is tenuous enough to ignore.

Matt and I never knew each other. But now I don't really think we were strangers.

Down the Rabbit-Hole: Jackrabbit's Story, Part 2
[Originally published Nov. 23, 2009]

One of the interesting things I've started to notice about trauma is the need to talk-- to talk to anybody, it seems. The few short days between Matt's assault and the night when he died were almost consumed with people talking-- about the beating, about sexual orientation and violence. That was the week I think I heard the word "hate crime" for the first time, and probably "homophobia," too. There was a sudden need to try and talk through the trauma, I guess in hopes of making it fit into how we saw the world.  But that's the problem with trauma-- it doesn't fit into how we see the world at all.  We can't just fudge it around until it squeezes into our sense of right and wrong.  For most of us, however, talking ended up being impossible anyhow because of the descent of the national media, and whatever dialogue that was happening after the beating promptly vanished.

So, sometime after the rally and I discovered how many people I knew were connected to Matt Shepard (I think it was the night before the Newman Center vigil), I found myself wandering aimlessly through the campus at night. I normally can't concentrate very well while sitting still, and so I walked instead, using my legs like pistons to force my mind into motion. For some reason, I gravitated towards Prexy's Pasture. To my surprise, there were about a dozen other people already there. I asked one guy why he was there, and he shrugged. "It felt like something I had to do," he said. None of us really knew each other. We sat down in front of a monument towards one end of the pasture and talked to each other in the darkness, trying to make collective sense of everything going on. We all remained there for about an hour and a half, I suppose, before we wandered off to other places. It's funny-- I shared some of the most personal thoughts I was capable of having at eighteen years old with that group of people, and in the darkness I couldn't even see their faces. To this day I don't know who any of them were. 

For the rest of that week, all the Honors English classes in Hoyt Hall ground to a screeching halt.  The beating was all the freshmen could think about, so it’s all we discussed in class on Friday and part of the following week. Instead of reading the Odyssey like I was supposed to, I was stuck in the middle of Lolita instead, unpacking and exploding my ideas on sexuality at the same time most of us were all talking frankly about sexual orientation and homophobia for the first time. Most of us were up for the challenge, but a few heated arguments broke out, and I heard about one English class where a kid started screaming at a female professor and stormed out.

My professor, Dr. H, divided his time between talking over Matt’s beating with us in class and talking over Nabokov with me during his office hours. After I got done with Lolita, I still had more questions than he had answers, so Dr. H let me do my next paper on Lolita; then he handed me Angels in America and Wise Blood— books I had to hide from my parents when I was home on Christmas break. I actually got into a screaming match with my father that started when my mother found my copy of Lolita in my suitcase. Thank goodness they never found the Kushner; I would have been dead meat.

But it was immediately after the rally that the satellite trucks and reporters started arriving en masse to the campus to corral every person they could get their hands on into an interview. In the first, more naive stage of our trauma, a lot of people talked openly with the reporters about what was going on, trying to get people to understand. Understand what? I don’t even think they knew, everyone was in so much shock. But after a couple of days, as we all watched the news reports we began to realize that the reporters neither shared our perspective nor reported it accurately, and that dumbfounded shock started to turn into outrage. Our conversations in Washakie cafeteria sounded something vaguely like this:
“Is it true he was burned? I read in the news that he was burned.”
“I heard he hit on them. Seriously? That's no reason to do what they did...”
“Did you hear that idiot they interviewed on ABC? Where the hell did they dredge that redneck up?"
" How many beers do you figure he pushed back before they stuck that camera in his face?”
"Who goes to a bar to get an interview in the first place?" 
“They’re talking to that guy from Bosler...”
“You gotta be kidding me—him? I wouldn’t trust him any farther than I can drop-kick him.”
“What are people gonna think of us?”
"My mom called, she wants to pull me out of school because she's watching the news and she thinks it's not safe here..."
“That asshole filmed my professor’s political science class for over ninety minutes, and what—he cut his footage down to those five seconds? I can’t believe it..."
Once we realized the tiny, distorting fishbowl that we’d all suddenly been thrown into, we all clammed up pretty fast. Some people on campus actually tried to explain things to the reporters that they had it all wrong, that we really weren’t like that, but what was the point? The story was already rolling; all the reporters could do was run alongside as it picked up momentum like a runaway truck. Our only response then, was to stop talking.  I trained my eye to look for reporters the same way I was taught to look for antelope when driving: the moment you see one, check both sides of the road.  Otherwise, you might swerve to avoid the one just to plow into the next one.  Be prepared to dodge them twice because they have a habit of cutting back in front of you.   

That advice, strangely, worked pretty well; I avoided getting hooked by a reporter for almost exactly one year.  By the end of two weeks, I had perfected my reporter brush-off to the point I was actually proud of it. Most of us walked the other way when we saw a microphone. A lot of us stopped going into the Student Union altogether, and none of us went downtown towards the courthouse. Even though I went everywhere by bicycle then, I would go out of my way to avoid Ivinson Avenue.

My distrust of reporters grew so great that I didn’t go to the vigil at the Newman Center either. I really regret that now. I had a lot on my mind Sunday afternoon, and since my boyfriend lived off-campus, I went to his place instead for a little commiseration at a safe distance from the media. I had toyed with going to the vigil in support of my friends, many of whom were still wandering around with stricken faces. Nevertheless, when he and I had walked as far as the Catholic church a little while after it started, I saw the fleet of satellite trucks parked to one side and the thick, orange cables snaking into the sanctuary, piled as thick as a man’s body—and I turned around and left. I was too sick to my stomach to try and get inside. Instead, I kicked a couple of satellite trucks in frustration and stalked back to my boyfriend's apartment, where we didn't talk about it, either.

Later that night, I watched footage from the vigil and wished I could have been there with everyone else, a feeling that only lasted until I saw the next video clip: a huge video camera on a swing-arm and a boom mic hulked over the worshipers in the sanctuary.  I instinctively changed the channel. Later that night, when we found out on the news that Matt had died, I had no clue how to respond.

I remember vaguely turning to my boyfriend and asking, “What’s going to happen now?”  He didn't know, either.  We just looked at each other in complete confusion.  All we knew was that the future wasn't going to be pleasant.

Down the Rabbit-Hole: Jackrabbit's Story, Part 3
[Originally published Nov. 25, 2009]

You know, I'm not really sure where the next place I should go with this should be. There was a pretty long hiatus between the insanity of the first weeks, the arraignment of Henderson and McKinney, and then the news reports, but that doesn't mean that time was calm. Someone in our program died in a wreck in Telephone Canyon, which was extremely tough for some of the upper classmen. I went home for Thanksgiving for the first time since I had started college and all hell broke loose. It seems like everyone except me and my parents were drinking like fish, and we all spent most of our time yelling at each other.   I retreated into my books instead, reading Wise Blood and The Violent Bear it Away, and I marveled at how O'Connor's spiritually distorted, disjointed world looked a lot like the one I was living in.  Over winter break I tore into more Nabokov and tried my hand at some Faulkner.  Quentin Compson hit just a little too close to home, so I put The Sound and the Fury away for a little longer, until I took modern literature with Dr. Loffreda. 

That spring hit us with a dizzying salvo of personal tragedies. Russell Henderson's trial and plea bargain had to compete with a suicide jumper from the 12th floor of White Hall and one of the more ridiculous bomb threats ever concocted. The Columbine shooting was that spring as well, and some of my fellow band students from the Littleton area were devastated. I have a vague memory of Henderson's sentencing sometime around the suicide and just before the Columbine shooting, but it's not very clear to me at all.

What really stands out for me during this time were the protesters. In a way, they seemed to be an extension of the media, little more than carpetbaggers that rode in on the reporters' coattails to lap up all the spilled publicity. I think that's what particularly bothered a lot of us about the protesters: by and large, none of them represented our perspective. Rather, with the exception of the counter-protesters like Romaine and "Angel Action," they were largely unaffiliated organizations who decided to force their ideas upon us. They came from Kansas, from Texas-- everywhere, it seemed, except from home. And we had the feeling that we were being judged by the crazies who had swarmed into Laramie to get their point across.

The first shock was that stupid fraternity float in Fort Collins. Two greek organizations (whom I will not name) sponsored a float in the homecoming parade down there and, at some point, trussed up a scarecrow on their float that had the words "I'm gay" spray painted on it. CSU and UW are sport rivals, which might explain the impetus for something this stupid. Other than that, it's completely inexplicable to me.  Even though it didn't happen in our town, the outrage on campus was real but diffuse. It just seemed like an isolated incident. 

We couldn't have been more wrong.  Fred Phelps and his cult-church from Kansas showed up about a week later in Casper to protest Matt's funeral. I was actually in Casper the same weekend that Matt was buried (it was the same weekend as the marching band competition in the Casper Events Center) and we made a point of avoiding downtown. While they held their neon signs and screamed hate at people, the UW marching band was across town in the Casper Events Center wearing yellow and green armbands while marching in an exhibition. I had never seen so many police cruisers in one place in my life.

That was just the beginning, however.   Hateful protesters from all political views descended on the Albany County courthouse for the opening jury selection for Russel Henderson-- pro death-penalty, anti- death penalty, anti-gay... there probably were some crazy pro-gay activists there, too. I just don't remember seeing any. The PD had corralled them all off with black plastic snow fence to keep them off the sidewalk, like they were animals. The different groups, it seemed to me, were trying to one-up each other in outrageousness in an attempt to steal the spotlight from one another. I remember one in particular that infuriated me: some pro-death penalty group had built a buck fence on the back of a flatbed with a protester trussed on it, and they towed it around town. I wanted to scream every time I saw it.

Phelps later showed up to our campus, I think for the first time during the opening of the Henderson trial and plea bargain in the spring. He was there for days, off and on, through the whole trial ordeal. I'm not sure if he was running two groups, or if they would divide their time between the courthouse and campus-- either way, they were the first major protest that had hunkered down on the university campus itself. They had a large pen cordoned off for them on the south and west side of the student union building, where they'd stand with their neon-colored signs. If I remember correctly they were mostly silent, but they would occasionally shout obscenities at the gawking crowd.

I had an English class in the engineering building, and the only sensible way to get there from my dorm was to cut between Coe Library and the Student Union. The signs I saw in the corridor made me stop in my tracks. I had to pass within four feet of the orange plastic barrier to get through the crowd that had gathered. This rail-thin, hard-bodied man with eyes the color of snakeskin stared at me as I passed. "Are you ready?" He hissed, or something like it. "Are you ready to burn?" I'm not sure why he singled me out. I felt my hair stand on end, and I backed away from Fred Phelps about as fast as I could manage in the crowd.

When I got to the west side of the union facing Prexy's, I could get a better look and view the whole scene. I saw kids-- oh my gosh, the kids, some of them couldn't be more than eight years old, holding signs about "homo sex" and whatever that they couldn't even understand, waving them about like the adults. These weren't little zombie, children-of-the-corn kids, either. That would have made it more tolerable. Instead, these kids danced about listlessly or balanced on their toes, they played with their gum and got bored and whined like normal children. What they were doing, it seemed, was part of an otherwise "normal" childhood. That was chilling.

But that was also when I saw the angels for the first time. I walked farther forward to get a better look, and that's when I saw Romaine Patterson on the front of the picket line. I knew Romaine from high school from speech and debate, and I hadn't really seen her since she graduated. I knew her slightly from speech and debate.  When we'd see each other in the hall, Romaine used to click her tongue at me and my debate partner in mock consternation.  "Oh, you skinny, skinny people,"  she'd tease us, and we'd both laugh.  We called her the "Lemon chick" after her dramatic monologue performance, which I think was from Aunt Dan and Lemon. One of her main competitors was a friend of mine who did The Bell Jar (and was thus dubbed the "Sylvia Plath girl"), so I got to see Romaine perform a lot in high school. She was amazing. 

There was Romaine in a long line of angel-garbed protesters holding hands, blocking out the cattle-pens of the WBC protesters from the rest of us. Besides thinking, "Wow, that's Romaine Patterson," all I could think about was Angels in America, where the angel crashes down upon Prior Walter at the end of the play. I had first read the play, I think at Dr. H's suggestion, and we were in the middle of reading it in my Political Theater class with Dr. P.  I was also in the middle of a presentation on Kushner and wrote two papers on the plays. That's what Romaine seemed to me: Prior's angel, crashing in from the ceiling.  I couldn't talk to her in the middle of the protest, so I left her there with her other angels.

One of the best parts of the protest, however, never got mentioned in TLP-- the pizza party that the LGBTA sponsored on the steps about thirty feet away from the protest area. They had free pizza for hundreds of people, which was drawing far more students with hungry bellies than the protesters were drawing with their hate. People came, snagged some pizza, and chatted amicably like WBC didn't even exist. "Sascha" was there too, looking far more composed and hopeful than the last time I had seen her. I think it helped a lot to actually be doing something in response to the WBC verbal attack. It would take her a long time, however, to finally heal over from Matt's murder.

But the best part of the counter-protest was the massive stereo system that the LGBTA had set up on the front entryway to the Union.  They were blasting every song by a gay or lesbian musician they could get their hands on: Melissa Ethridge, Indigo Girls, the Village People, Elton John...   As we chatted and caught back up, "Sascha" told me to look back at the protesters: those children in the protest area were waving their hateful signs about gay people, but they were dancing enthusiastically to "YMCA" while they were doing it-- and there wasn't a damn thing their parents could do about it. "Sascha" and I just laughed.

So, those were my two miracles in the middle of the Henderson trial: Romaine's angels, and making those children of hate dance in joy to the very thing they condemned.

Actually, make that three miracles: I saw "Sascha" smile again.

Down the Rabbit-Hole: Jackrabbit's Story, Part 4
[Originally published Dec. 2, 2009]

You know, up until three years ago, I was extremely resistant to admit that the Shepard murder had any profound or lasting impact on my life. I'm not entirely sure even now why that was the case; I think maybe it was because how much the whole experience left me jaded and worn out. It probably also had to do with denial; it didn't hit home until I saw a TLP performance just how psychologically battered the whole mess had left me, and the less I thought about everything, the better.

But Matt's death, and the trials, did leave a lasting impact on me. Like it or not, the worldview I had inherited from my conservative parents and my farm-born grandparents was undergoing a sea change. In a lot of ways, I still consider myself more of a conservative on some things, but I was rapidly turning into a rabid egalitarian when it came to issues of human rights and tolerance. When I later became a believing, evangelical Christian, I took those lessons with me into my faith; I moved progressively away from the staunch, legalistic individualism of my Western American upbringing (and the Baptist Faith and Message) to something much more closely akin to Desmond Tutu's ubuntu theology.  I can't deny that these years following Matt's death have been a major influence for all of that.

For instance, during that spring semester of total hell, I felt compelled to do something that would have been completely unthinkable just a year before: I marched in a protest for gay rights in Cheyenne, WY with two friends of mine from my Political Theater class.   The protest was part of a larger program of activities for Equality Week, which kicked off with a march to the capitol on March 27th.  It was absolutely freezing that morning even though it was later in March, and I spent a lot of time before the march huddled under a storefront awning and stamping my feet to keep the circulation going in my toes. I felt very brave and political and progressive when we first started off down the street towards the capitol chanting our slogans, but when I saw a news camera, a terrible thought leaped into my head: if my father saw me on the six o'clock news, I was going to get my butt handed to me.  I marched the rest of the parade hiding behind a corpulent protester with my picket in front of my face, and I didn't feel like such a brave eighteen year-old anymore.

During that time the WBC protestors-- and Angel Action-- came and went. We all knew that Phelps would be back, but Romaine and her angels couldn't stay there forever; at some point we had to fend for ourselves. Phelps came back at the start of the proceedings against Aaron McKinney in the fall of 1999 and set up camp again outside the student union. The orange plastic pens reappeared, and I had to walk that narrow corridor past Phelps's cold, drowning eyes about four times a day to get to my Latin and English classes. I got used to gripping my arms around my books and looking the other way when I had to shoulder my way past their placards and the media cameras taking in the spectacle. 

I was working as an RA in the fall of 1999, and now I was in a position to watch the freshman students in my dorm struggle with the same shock and outrage I had felt upon seeing the protesters for the first time. Most of them had never seen anything like that except on the news. Some of them, bless them, even wanted to fight back. There was this one guy in particular (who I'll call "Bill") who really wanted to face off against Phelps. I passed him in the hall of our dorm one afternoon talking over something excitedly with another one of our residents.
"What have you got there?" I asked him. He waved a sheet in front of my face.
"I've been doing my research, I've been reading the Bible," this kid blustered. For "Bill," that was quite an accomplishment. "I've got it all right here. I can refute him." I looked at the paper he had-- a list of Bible verses.
"So, you're going to walk up to him behind that barricade and, what-- strike up a theological debate with him?" I asked, a little incredulous. "Like that will do any good." "Bill" rolled his eyes at his friend in frustration. I was a little annoyed that he was treating me like I was the one who didn't get it.  I'd been putting up with this crap for over a year and, what-- he was going to stroll in from out of state and tell me how to do things?     
"So you're just going to sit around and not do anything?" "Bill" said. "I can prove he's wrong..."
"But nobody who'll listen to you thinks he's right anyway," I countered. "What do you think you're going to accomplish? You can't change his mind. You're just playing into his hand. Just ignore the jerk." The kid gave me a disgusted look; I didn't have the patience to explain the last year of my life, so I handed him back his paper and left.
The funny thing, looking back, was that one of his refutations was Proverbs 29:9: "If a wise man contendeth with a foolish man, whether he rage or laugh, there is no rest." That's ironic.  To his credit, "Bill" kept up his high-minded, philosophical response to Phelps, but I think it came at a cost-- he was disorganized and distracted, and his grades suffered. At the time, I felt ashamed; "Bill" seemed so much braver than me. I was openly terrified of Phelps, but at least "Bill" had the guts (or the hubris-- I'm not sure which) to face off with him.

But, strangely, when the Aaron McKinney trial started up in earnest, there was no real conversation about it this time. When Matt was first beaten, everyone was talking; now, almost a year to the day from his death, nobody really wanted to discuss it at all. A few people talked a little bit about the "gay panic" defense and how stupid it was, but there were no serious debates about the issues. I have to wonder how much the media presence was responsible for that freeze over our minds, and how much of it was simply an inability to process everything. I don't think I can blame the press for all our reticence, after all, but they sure didn't help. 

The media were still there, of course, lurking around every corner, and they were getting smarter. When the McKinney trial first started, most of the reporters were down at the courthouse, so we felt pretty safe. Besides, we were learning how to live with them just like we were learning to live with the bloom of mosquitoes we had that year: if you can't get rid of the little bloodsuckers, just brush them off. At some point during the trial, I was on Sorority Row lugging my horn case back to the Fine Arts building when I an older guy in a long coat walking in my direction.
"What on earth are you carrying there, young lady?" he asked me cheerfully.
"It's a euphonium case," I said.
"A eu-what?" He asked, baffled.
"Think of a baby tuba," I replied, and we got into a lazy, cheerful conversation about the concert coming up and the campus in general. I could tell that the guy wasn't a local, but for some reason it never occurred to me why he was there. Finally, he opened up his trench coat and pulled out a large, fuzzy microphone. Oh, shit, I remember thinking. I just got suckered in by a reporter. I was so furious with myself.
"I hate to do this to you," he asked, almost apologetically, "but would you mind if I asked you a couple questions about the trial?" My mind started uttering a long stream of obscenities.
"Um," I said. "Sure, I guess." I wanted to run.
And that's how I ended up getting interviewed for NPR in the cold, holding an empty euphonium case and trying to desperately think of everything I didn't want to tell him. I swear that I have never performed so much self-censorship in my life. I'm pretty sure I was the only person he cajoled into talking to him that day, seeing as I gave him the worst interview he'd probably ever taken and he used the footage anyway. On the flip side of things, he represented his fellow media-people extremely well. He was the first national reporter I had seen who treated us students like actual human beings, and even though the interview left a sour taste in my mouth, he was a respectful, thoughtful fellow, and I liked him a lot nonetheless. I salute you, Mr. NPR reporter guy, whoever you were; thanks for proving to me that not every national media reporter covering the McKinney trial was a jerk. 

I didn't think much of the interview until I phoned home a week later. "By the way," my father said, "Bob said he heard you on NPR a couple of days ago." My father's friend Bob lived in another state, which was my first indication that I was on a national news report.  I started to panic a little.  Had I said anything that would make my father angry?
"Um, did he say anything about the interview?"  I asked.  I held my breath, hoping. 
"No, just that he heard you,"  Dad said.  I was so relieved. 
 I was a little more careful after that. As the Equality March had proven, the trial was starting to make me form opinions that wouldn't jive well with my family, and I didn't want to have to explain myself.

And how did things end, you might ask?  It was a bit of an anti-climax on my end.  After all the protests, the media, and the frustration, I just have this memory of riding in a friend's car when the news of the plea bargain was announced over the radio the day after they found McKinney guilty.  I remember breathing a huge sigh of relief when I heard that he wasn't going to be executed. My mind stopped for a moment, confused, and that's when I realized that I no longer believed in the death penalty. I had just caught myself in the middle of a major shift in my worldview, and it was a little disorienting. I didn't think that such deep-seated ideals could actually be changed, but here I was, grateful that Matt Shepard's murderer was going to be allowed to live. If anybody deserved death for what he did, it was McKinney; and yet, I knew that a death sentence wasn't going to solve anything. This community would never be allowed to heal if he were.  I listened later to the Shepards' statement about the plea deal, and there was no doubt in my mind that it was the right thing to do.

And that's the next major change Matt Shepard made in me: I discovered that I was against the death penalty. And that was the end, so to speak, of my personal experience with Matt Shepard's murder. The next part of this story is driven less by Matt himself as it is The Laramie Project-- and I suppose that shall be where the Jackrabbit eventually runs to next.

Fear, Loathing and The Laramie Project: the 2000 Production
[Originally published Feb. 1, 2010]

Now that I have explained my relationship to the Matt Shepard tragedy and the two trials, I need to explain the next phase.  My story doesn't really end with the conviction of Matt's killers; it continues through my experience with The Laramie Project to the reading of Ten Years Later.  A lot of my fear and loathing really comes out in relation to the play than anything else-- so I suppose that is what I'll have to explain next: my first experience riding out the shock waves of that earthquake of a play produced by Tectonic Theater.   

Before the 2000 Tectonic performance in Laramie, I never really considered myself "traumatized" by what had happened after Matt's murder. It was merely a headache, one among many. After all, I never knew Matt; In comparison to other people like "Sascha," who was his friend and was still hurting two years later, what right did I have to bear those kinds of psychological wounds?

Besides, I had bigger problems: screwing up the relationship I was in; trying to deal with seeing what was left of a suicide jumper from the top of my dorm; worrying about my brother dropping out of college and getting into trouble and my sister still trying to deal with the wreckage of a messy divorce; the death of a favorite high school teacher in a car wreck; running into spiritual questions I couldn't answer. The Shepard incident and the media problems seemed to be just one minor problem of a whole host of other issues that hit much closer to home and consumed much more of my attention.

Of course, we all knew about The Laramie Project and I knew that they were interviewing people I knew, but I don't remember thinking anything about it other than I didn't want to get involved.   For one, I was having trouble distinguishing what they were doing from the media.  The reporters came in uninvited, took our stories, and then used them in ways we didn't like in front of a national audience.  As far as I was concerned, these easterners were doing the same thing.  If I had been privy to the relationships they were building with their interviewees, I might have changed my mind about that.  In any case, just as I had trained myself to brush off the reporters, I backed away from anything having to do with the play or the filming.
The only time that was an issue was early into marching band season that year when our graduate student "Lawson" started pressing us into service to re-create the homecoming parade scene for the HBO filming. "Lawson" was a nice guy with an affable, goofy personality, but as much as I liked him personally, a team of wild stallions couldn't have drug me out to that shooting.  A bunch of us were lounging about in the basement of Fine Arts one afternoon when walked briskly up to us.  
"Hey guys," he said, "We're still short bodies for the filming this afternoon.  Any of you willing to grab a uniform and go to the shooting?" A shooting.  That's what it felt like-- rifles instead of cameras.   I remember an awkward pause as we all stared at each other.  None of us moved. 
"Come on," he needled us.  "Are you seriously going to turn down a chance to be a movie extra?"  He turned to me.  "What about you, Jackrabbit?  We really need brass."  I think I actually sneered at him.   I'm ashamed of this now as I look back.   
"Nah," I answered him.  "It's raining and it's miserable out there.  I'm not bicycling downtown in a banana coat [our band rain gear] dragging a horn case."  
"We can get a carpool going..." he offered.  I dug my heels in. 
"Lawson, I ain't doing it." 
I looked around. None of the other band members next to me were stirring either. Most of them had their faces set in hard glares.  "Lawson" glared back at us all, said "forget it," and he stalked off. I don't know what they did to fill out the band-- maybe they asked high school students.  At the time, I didn't even care enough to ask.

And yet, when Tectonic Theater brought the play to town, I couldn't help but go.  There was a little bit of controversy about the terms that student government had to bring them in under because the student activities council literally had to scrape the barrel and take donations to get the money to bring them in, and they still charged for tickets to cover the rest of the cost.  A lot of people felt like they owed it to us to donate a performance.  While this annoyed me immensely (one of my residents was a student rep and griped about it a lot), I still bought a ticket as soon as the box office opened.  For one, it was theater; I couldn't get enough of drama classes in the English department, and the promise of seeing a professional theater company in our little Fine Arts auditorium drew me like honey draws a bear.  Besides, I was extremely curious. I knew a lot of the interviewees-- Romaine, Jed, and a few others, aside from university people-- and I wanted to see what they had to say.  "Sascha," if I remember, was an interviewee but didn't make it into the printed version.  I bought a ticket early to make sure I could get a seat. 

The night of the performance in 2000, I wasn't prepared for the reaction I had to the play. For one, I was fascinated by seeing people I knew from college, from high school and from church on the stage. The guy who played Dr. Peacock did such a perfect job that he was even wearing the same kind of Columbia fleece pullover that he wore almost every day in my Political Science class.   The guy playing Jed even pushed all his hair forward into his face with a tuque (a knitted cap) to simulate that awful haircut Jed had back then.  Their accents and mannerisms were so accurate that I was enthralled.  It was only the second time I had gotten completely sucked into a theatrical performance.  The first one was Angels in America the previous fall, when Jed Schultz had played Prior Walter and Rian Jairell played Roy Cohn.

I had a lot of disease when I watched the performance too, partially because I knew "The Baptist Church" pretty well-- I had just been baptized in that church a few weeks before the performance, and my vestigial connections to that community will inevitably probably color anything I say about it. I was pretty ambivalent about Amanda Gronich's portrayal of the church service; I would have walked out of a sermon like that had the current pastor preached it.  Gronich admits in the play that she and Kaufman were working from memory, so I do have to wonder how much of the cultural shock of the service and her later interaction with the Minister influenced her recollection.  On the other hand, since I had never met "The Baptist Minister," who had gone back to Texas by the time I took up with that church, I can't really speak for him. Maybe he really is that abrasive. 

Everything was fine until the beginning of the second act.  After Dr. Peacock introduced the descent of the media into Laramie, the TT members recreated the feeling of the reporter invasion on stage using live cameras, microphones and drop-down televisions from the lights with a live feed.  In the sea of overlapping voices and re-hearing news reports I remembered from two years ago, everything came back at once-- not just Matt's murder, but all the other problems I was having at the same time-- and the next thing I knew, I had both hands clamped over my ears and my eyes shut, and I was crying. 

You know, I just love the stage directions on this scene:  This moment should feel like an invasion and should be so perceived by the other actors onstage (47).  Gee, no shit.   It took less than forty-five seconds in that "moment" to turn me into a crying, snuffling wreck.  It still does, too.  The person sitting next to me must have thought I was nuts. 

I managed to pull myself together about five minutes later just to do it all again when Phelps came on the stage in Act III during the funeral scene.  The moment they portrayed that man stalking out of my nightmares, hissing his lines from the back of the stage, I couldn't watch any more.  Back came the hands-- this time over my eyes-- and back came the tears.  Thank the Lord he's only on stage for a couple of minutes and the angels cover him up for half of that.

So, after that, it was pretty clear that the last two years of hell had affected me in ways I hadn't anticipated.  I had spent plenty of time thinking about how the protests, the media, and the political turmoil was affecting all of us as a community, and I was concerned about how it was still crippling "Sascha";  but I hadn't stopped to think about how it had done the same to me.  It took a re-rehearsal of those days on the stage to bring back to the surface all the things I had buried so I could function as a normal college student.  If it hadn't been for TLP...  would I have had that moment of realization?  Would I have ever dealt with that trauma at all?  That's much harder to say because, you see, after the 2000 performance and I moved from Laramie, I buried all that trauma again only to have it resurface six years later at a different performance.  The Laramie Project had just as much to do with my burying that trauma as it did bringing it to the surface in the first place.  Why that happened, and how I finally started dealing with it, will have to wait for another post.

Fear, Loathing and The Laramie Project: Haunted
[Originally posted Feb. 7, 2010]

 I left Laramie in 2001 for the other side of the country.  I was recently married and my husband had a promising job lined up, so I was destined to finish my English degree at a small college in the deep South that smelled like mildew and looked like the set from a Civil War romance.  Once I left Laramie, however, I started to get an idea of what the rest of the country knew about Laramie and how the media, and how The Laramie Project as well, had colored their impression of us.  For the next eight years, it felt like every other new relationship I started also had to start with a defense of my home state.  I feel like ever since I left the Rockies I've been haunted-- haunted largely by this play.  Much of my own struggle to contend with the issues surrounding Matt's murder really come down to how I contend and find peace with The Laramie Project, but as you'll see from my story, that attempt to find peace is still very much a work in progress...

...  I would say that Laramie is a town defined by an accident, a crime.  We've become Waco, we've become Jasper.  We're a noun, a definition, a sign.  We may be able to get rid of that... but it sure will take a while. 
-- Jed Schultz, in TLP (2001): 9      

It actually started out as a game.  As I said before, when I started my new life with my husband, we moved about as far culturally as one could get from Laramie, Wyoming:  the deep South, so deep South that patches of it are still fighting the "War of Northern Aggression."  Culturally, I was an unknown entity to them, and I ended up fielding a lot of personal questions from people who thought that my direct, blunt Western personality was "butch" and not exactly appropriate for a woman.  As I met new people and they asked where I was from, I'd count down the seconds in my head until realization struck.   
 "So, where did you go to college before here, Jackrabbit?"  Somebody would ask. 
"Laramie, Wyoming."  Then I'd count off the seconds...One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four...
"Say-- isn't that where that gay kid was murdered?"  They said it almost the exact same way every time: that gay kid
"His name was Matt Shepard," I'd correct them.
 People rarely left me disappointed-- if they figured it out at all, they'd make the connection to "that gay kid" Every.  Single. Damn.  Time.  From there came the questions, like, "So, was it really a gay-bashing, or was it just a robbery?"  or, "Are the people really that backward and closed-minded out there?"  or, "So how many gay people can there be in Wyoming, anyway?"  People suddenly felt entitled to ask me much more personal questions, too, like "did you know him?" or, "what was it like to be there?"  These questions knotted my stomach and usually went unanswered.  My favorite has to be the college student who then decided it was okay to ask me if the "Indians" there still lived on the reservation in tepees.  Occasionally I'd get a person who asked me where I'd gone to college, and when I told them, their eyes would get big and they'd say, "Ohhhh," and they'd stop talking.  I was already judged. 
After the first year or so, it stopped being so amusing.  I was beginning to realize just how much misunderstanding there was surrounding the situation.  For instance, a small but significant group of people somehow missed that Phelps was from Kansas, so there was this tendency among people who had read or seen the play to merge Phelps and "The Baptist Minister" in their heads.  Naturally, this infuriated me: people were assuming that Phelps spoke for the local community, which he doesn't.   Some people were genuinely surprised to find out that Phelps wasn't local, or at least from Wyoming.  When communities in the South started having their own encounters with Phelps and his slavering entourage of media harpies-- at soldiers' funerals, and during the coal mine disaster-- I stopped getting those questions.

 But the play itself was something I also kept bumping into.  When I went to the 2000 Laramie performance of TLP, the members of Tectonic Theater had a short Q & A session with the audience afterward.  One woman (it might have been Marge Murray, I'm not so sure now) complimented them on their performance and said, "This isn't so much a play as an anthropology project."  She then expressed some concern about what would happen when other people, play companies who hadn't met the Laramie residents and developed a level of sympathy for them, started performing the play.  My memory is a little fuzzy at this point.  "You're not going to publish this so others can perform it, are you?"  I remember someone asking, and Moisés Kaufman squirmed a little on the stage.  Then he dodged the question.  Maybe he wasn't sure about how he was going to finesse that question enough to admit to that theater full of Laramie residents and his own interviewees that they were going to do exactly that. 
The Vintage edition of the play was released early in the fall of 2001, and by the time I started college in the fall, some professors were already assigning it for classes.  I was wandering through the bookstore looking at titles when I saw copies of the play sitting on a shelf.  An acquaintance of mine came alongside me as I stared, gape-mouthed, at the cover.
"Jackrabbit, what's wrong?"  she asked me.  I thrust the book at her. 
"This is what's wrong," I hissed.   She gave me a confused look. 
"Moisés Kaufman is a greedy, money-grubbing bastard,"  I snarled, and I stomped out. 
Okay, so obviously I overreacted.  (I'm really sorry, Mr. Kaufman.)  I thought so too, as soon as I had enough time and distance to cool down.  But that outrage I felt was real, and it had a source.  After the TT performance the previous year, I finally was able to give Tectonic the benefit of the doubt: they weren't like the national reporters.  They weren't just here for an easy story and a fast buck; they actually cared about the people they were portraying.  Realizing that they had just broadcast The Laramie Project like ragweed seed over the whole country made me feel like I had been duped.  If they actually cared about how Laramie looked to the rest of the world, I thought, then why the hell would they let anybody do as sloppy and irresponsible of a performance as they pleased?  What was going to happen when a play company full of haters got hold of this book and decided to have a production?

As I got a little more perspective, however, their publishing the play made more sense.  Why wouldn't they want to publish this thing? I reasoned.  Why wouldn't they?  If you understood their social and political aspirations for the play, then publishing the thing was a no-brainer.  And once the script was released, that's what happened: productions started sprouting up all over the US, and people started talking.  And protesting.  And thinking.  Of course they were going to publish it.  But that didn't make it sting any less to realize that I had absolutely no control over what people were going to see, and how they'd react. 

 That little nightmare came true in pretty short order.  An independent acting company in my college town sponsored a production of the play pretty quickly.  When I read an article on the play in the newspaper, I started to feel sick.  There was a lot of talk in the article about what "those people" are like, judgmental language about Laramie that smacked of elitism.  The actors in the dress rehearsal photo were all wearing terrible polyester Western shirts from the seventies that they must have culled from the vintage clothing shop downtown.  I threw away the newspaper, infuriated, and waited for the questions to come after the performance.  And those questions did come:  "So you used to live in Laramie?  Can I ask you something...?"  The 20/20 special that came out a few years later only added fuel to the fire, which meant I spent an inordinate amount of time in the Deep South seemingly defending myself from a stereotype that the media created, but one that the controversy around The Laramie Project fomented.

I resented this fact immensely.  I mean, Laramie was my adopted home, not theirs, and let's face it-- a large part of my identity is tied to the land, which means that I am, at least in part, a land stained in the blood of Matthew Shepard.  Over time, I've learned to accept this fact, but back then it hurt; it hurt so badly to be judged like that that, like many so many others in psychological pain, I wrongly blamed the messenger.  Tectonic Theater didn't have to walk down the street among people who looked at me with minds full of gay-bashers and buck fences and hate; I did.  So after a couple years, my reflex response whenever questions arose was to rip the play to shreds and tell people about how inaccurate it was. That doesn't mean I was justified in what I did.  It just means that there was a reason that I did it. 

So, that was my life for a long time.  After five years of fielding those questions at my college town in the deep South, I moved to the not-so-deep South to start a PhD program in 2006.   It was a fresh start, a new location, and I was genuinely excited to get moving down the path towards my degree.  We had graduate student orientation the week before classes, where we introduced ourselves and did workshops to prepare for teaching our English classes.

During one of our orientation sessions, one of the RWL professors informed us that there were a lot of cultural events we might tie into our classes that semester.  "For instance,"  she said, "the Theater Department will be doing a production of The Laramie Project this fall that could tie in well with your classes..."  I felt like I had just been kicked in the liver.  I hunched over and groaned while my head swam, and one of the new lecturers nearby gave me a concerned look.  "Are you okay?"  She whispered.  I shook my head and fought back the nausea.  As I held my breath to keep from throwing up, I remember feeling rather stupid.  It didn't matter where I went, this damn play was following me and I couldn't let it define my life any longer. 
So, with a lot of fear and loathing (and a little bit of encouragement from that RWL professor) I decided I'd teach the play to my freshmen as a way to help me get over the panic.  I discovered that reading the play was actually manageable, so I figured that maybe that the panic and terror I felt when I saw the 2000 version was finally over.  I taught the play, at first, as a cultural study with a clear purpose, and we spent a lot of time first by making a character sketch of the Laramie community and then connecting ideas and sentiments made by Laramie residents with the culture at large.  How can we see Laramie asking the same questions and engaging in the same debates about class, homosexuality and tolerance that we see on our campus?  I'd ask them. 

Let's be honest: part of the reason I wanted to teach the play was so that I could control the conversation for once.  Instead of putting me on the defensive like I was used to, my students were more open, more curious than anything.  These students came from a more rural and agrarian background than where I was before, so they could identify with the community.   I was so relieved that I could let them draw their own conclusions without feeling completely judged by what they came up with.  We could talk openly about the more intolerant opinions in the play without them assuming that they spoke for me personally.  And I discovered, with a little bit of distance from the text, that I had been unfair about what the play had to say about Laramie.

But there was still that fall production to deal with:  I had been ignoring it.  The reviews looked pretty good, to be honest, and a few of my students wanted to see about going, so I bit my lip and walked over to the theater office to find tickets.  The venue was a small lab theater, so they were completely sold out; I had to wait around on the last night of the show hoping for an unclaimed ticket.  Fortunately, a few people never bothered to show up, so on November 19 I was one of about five people able to squeeze in just before the curtain call and watch my second performance of The Laramie Project in Appalachia.
The theater space was small and intimate.  It was an undergraduate production and well acted; the kid playing Jed Schultz (left) reminded me so much of Jed it was actually a little bit scary.  The girl playing Romaine had a solid, convincing performance; it just wasn't remotely like the Romaine I knew from high school.  When all you have are a person's words, I realized, how do you read their character?   She gave a great performance, but it was Romaine as a character rather than how Romaine Patterson really was.

But then we got to Act II again, and that insane "media descent" moment in "Gem City of the Plains."  There were no live televisions dropping from the ceiling this time, but the actors all pulled out their fuzzy microphones and overlapped their testimony to make that same wall of noise.  This time, I felt terror like a jackboot slam in between my shoulder blades and I almost choked on a flood of incoherent panic.  I covered my eyes and sobbed.  The problem was that I couldn't cover my face and my ears at the same time.  At the intermission I had to lock myself in a bathroom stall to try to stop hyperventilating.  By the time they dimmed the lights for the end of intermission I was reasonably stable enough to go back, and I went back to my seat with red eyes and shaking hands.  This was a bad idea, you see, because I had completely forgotten about Fred Phelps at the beginning of Act III.

The kid who played Phelps was a taller, wiry fellow who fit the type well, and he stalked over the stage menacingly while he gave his lines.  Whoever did the costume for Phelps had done their homework, too: he was dressed in a similar windbreaker and cowboy hat Phelps wears everywhere, and he had a placard in each hand.  The flash of white when he hoisted the signs was the trigger this time.  The panic seized me by the throat, and I cried so hard that my whole body was shaking.  I had my hands over my face for most of the rest of the play, and I was an utter wreck when it was done.

So, that was my second TLP viewing experience, and in a lot of ways the trauma was so much worse for the 2006 showing than six years previously.  The TT production was so much closer to the actual event, and it was staged and acted with devastating accuracy.  So why did I freak out so much worse six years later, at an extremely well done but nevertheless undergraduate performance?  Because I was no longer in Laramie, in a safe environment?  Was it six years of frustration and repression of the event itself?  Or, was it other personal issues going on at the same time?

Or, was there something about the lack of accuracy to people and events that I knew that made the experience so much more damaging?  I don't really know how to answer all that.  All I know is that for the next three years I'd spend my time teaching this play to every English class I taught, considering these questions, and especially trying to figure out how to translate the questions I was having about my own engagement with the social issues of the play into my lived existence.

Fear, Loathing and The Laramie Project: Narratives
[Originally published Feb. 12, 2010]
After the 2006 production of TLP at my college campus, I continued to teach the play; but, but following that traumatic evening, my pedagogy changed.  For one, I adopted instead a much more autobiographical focus in my classroom.  Our department allows us to pick themes for our 101 and 102 English classes, so I picked autobiographical memory for mine.  Actually, "Memory and Atrocity" might have been a better name for my class; in addition to TLP we generally read Maus and study the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa (a "semester of depression," one student quipped).  I've taught Jane Taylor's Ubu and the Truth Commission alongside TLP before, which had unpredictable but interesting results.  (Comparing TLP with autobiographical theater in South Africa is a rich, rich field of study I'm trying to research-- but more of that later.)

In my course, we read TLP as a reservoir of a crafted, collected (as opposed to collective) memory of Matt's murder, and we talk about the strengths, pitfalls, and limitations of memory to capture a specific moment in time.  We read TLP to look at the collective understanding of Matt's murder, the whys and hows of how people remember, and why personal memory is such a powerful tool for social change.  This would ultimately be good training for me, psychologically speaking, because I would have to face this play one more time:  the October reading of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later.

As we discuss autobiographical memory in class, we talk a lot about memory's limitations; we develop a vocabulary to talk about the cognitive and social distortion of memory and we apply it to what we see in the play.  My students are often frustrated that Matt's friends can't offer a convincing picture of who he was after he dies, and that we can't get to the motives of his killers, either.  But we also talk about narratives and schemas, and how the "happily ever after" ending we so often crave in bad situations has a cognitive basis and can have negative side-effects for social change.  I usually use the work of Saul Friedlander to talk about "redemptive history" and the way in which simply telling a story threatens to give it closure-- and creating that sense of closure is not always a good thing.  We discuss how some characters (most notably Jonas Slonaker) resist giving an easy, narrative-based closure to Matt's death that might shut down the possibility of social change. 

This change in focus in how I teach the play allowed me to use my own personal experience with Matt's death in class and dialogue with my students alongside their own personal experiences as well.  My students then write a paper on a personal experience using personal interviews, and they too get to make their own personal lives engage with an academic topic.  It's also allowed me to hash through my life in a meaningful way and demonstrate a method by which my students can do the same thing.  Sometimes it's just amazing the kinds of connections my students make; other times, it's an utter disaster. 
Anyhow, teaching TLP for eight semesters in a row was not destined to be my final experience with Matthew Shepard.  One afternoon in September I went to Starbuck's to check my e-mail, and I had received an email from a guy I didn't know with this subject header: "The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later."  My stomach squirmed. I opened up the email, and that's how I found out that Tectonic Theater was in the middle of producing a new epilogue based on interviews taken around the ten year anniversary of Shepard's death.  I was both extremely curious and intensely nauseated.  How did this guy know about me?  Apparently, what happened was that my minister friend ratted me out to a member of the Theater Department faculty when he found out about the new play.   To his credit, my friend did so because he figured I would want to know; he was right.  I did. 

So, my name was sent along to someone involved in the production, where we exchanged a couple of emails.  At this point, I had a big choice to make: did I want to get involved?  I had spent most of my adult life running from this event, or when I didn't run, getting ripped up by it.  Teaching was a good first start, but it was time to do something more.  After a long, tortuous moment of indecision, I spilled my guts.  I typed up a response to explain to this guy (who'll I'll call "Joe")  that I lived in Laramie when Matt died and had a conflicted relationship with the play as a result.  The next day he asked me if he could chat with me. We set up a time to talk the following week at a coffee kiosk near my department building. 

As it turned out, "Joe" was heavily involved in our local production of 10 Years Later and one of the actors.  He also turned out to be a great listener and extremely non-judgmental.  "Joe" had spent a lot of time on my end of the country and had a fairly sympathetic understanding of the people, too; he was also, I was shocked to learn, just as enthralled and ambivalent about the play as I was, and for a lot of the same reasons.  After I blabbered out an awkward, embarrassed version of the events I witnessed in Laramie and my personal experience with the play, he asked if I might still be interested in talking to the cast before the production that Monday.  I thought it over briefly. 
"I've been thinking about it since you emailed,"  I told him, "and I think I want to do it."  He nodded. 
"If you don't mind me asking, why do you want to do it?"  He asked.  I tried to say something in response, but I tripped on my words and nothing came out.  "I don't know if I can explain it,"  I told him.  "Joe" gave me a knowing look. 
"You want a chance to speak back into this narrative that's defined you-- don't you?"  He asked.  I couldn't deny it; he'd hit the nail on the head.  I nodded, and for some reason I felt rather ashamed.   
"Yes.  Do you think that's selfish?" I remember asking him.  He smiled, and I felt  so relieved. 
"Absolutely not."  
In any case, it was settled.  "Joe" talked to the director, and that's how I found myself facing a table full of graduate acting students and professional stage actors the night before 10 Years Later would premiere locally.  It was pretty close to the most nerve-wracking thing I've ever done.  At least when I got married, after all, I had a vague idea what I was getting into. 

I waited outside the Sunday before the performance for the first read-through to get wrapped up, and "Joe" came out to the wings to come and get me.  I was fine until we walked onto the stage, and when I saw how many actors there were sitting around the tables on the stage, I almost froze in my tracks.  "Joe" gave me hug around the shoulders, and that was enough to keep me moving.

We talked for over an hour.  Well, I babbled incoherently for about half that, and then we talked around the table for a little longer.  In a weird way, talking about it felt really, really good-- kind of like getting a bandage ripped off.  The cast was genuinely interested in what I had to say, for one-- one of them coaxed me into talking a bit about what Beth Loffreda was like (I had no idea at this point she was an interviewee in Ten Years Later), and we talked a lot about the original TLP and its influence.  Most of them had personal stories that somehow tied into the play as well-- life-changing moments when they played a certain character or saw the play, for instance, or personal experiences with gay-targeted violence.  One person even uses theater as a kind of community therapy. 

So that's how I finally told my story-- and they told me theirs.   And it made me think hard about how this play creates such interesting relationships between people.  I still had the performance to get through the next day, which I was dreading, but I had better save that for a different post.

Fear, Loathing, and The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, 1500 Miles Away
[Originally published Feb, 21, 2010]

The October 12 performance was a watershed moment for me.  For one, it was the first time I had had a healthy interaction with a TLP performance, and it was only the second time I had actually dialogued back with the play-- two plays, now.  The performance has given me a lot to think about, a lot to question, and especially a lot for introspection.  This blog entry is my first attempt to try and work through what the play experience was like from my observer's perspective.   

I hadn't really slept since the Friday night before the performance.   Adrenaline kept me moving through most of Sunday when I chatted with the cast, but by Monday I was absolutely dragging.  I was actually in the middle of an LGBTA meeting right before I left for the performance site and nervous as heck.  (Yes, I'm a straight, conservative evangelical who's actively involved in the LGBT community-- please, just... deal with it.)  This week, I was catching up with a friend I'll call "Lucas"  while everyone else chatting about the National Coming Out Day activities and were planning on seeing Milk that evening on campus.  "Lucas" and I whispered back and forth confidentially in the middle of the hubbub; he'd had an absolutely miserable weekend.  
"I've got to run to the play," I finally said when I couldn't wait any longer.  "I'll catch you later."  My friend gave me a funny look.
"You okay, hun?"  He asked.
"This play scares the hell out of me,"  I confessed.  Naturally, this confused him.  You see, I had never told anyone in that room except the club president my history before. 
"Why would it scare you?"   He asked.  So I came out with it to my friend "Lucas" right there. He was dumbfounded.  "Lucas" gave me a bear hug to comfort me before I left, and then I slipped out the back door.    
I went to the play alone.  My husband had evening classes until well after the play started anyhow, and besides-- this felt like a beast I had to confront on my own.  For some reason, this case has never haunted him like it has me.  That's always struck me as odd-- my husband went to high school with Shepard, and they knew each other slightly.  I never knew him at all.  My husband has an almost stoic acceptance and peace regarding the circumstances of Shepard's murder.  So why should I be the neurotic one, I often wonder? 
I drove to the theater site about an hour ahead of time to snag a seat; "Joe" was kind enough to reserve a place for me in case our first come, first serve performance filled up quickly.  The performance location was small and intimate like the 2006 TLP performance, and oddly appropriate for the reading of the Epilogue.  The building itself was the site of a homophobia-fueled hate crime a little over a year ago, and it was a little eerie walking around knowing what had happened there; two people had died in a shotgun attack during a children's theater performance.  Tragic spaces like this are everywhere, it seems.

Several people I bumped into before the performance were there the day of the attack, and watching the play that night was a way for them to heal.  My minister friend surprised me by showing up to the performance for moral support; at the intermission, he introduced me to the parents of a mutual friend.  As I shook their hands, there was a weird moment of... I don't know what.  You see, I knew that they had survived the shotgun attack a year ago; they knew I had been in Laramie when Matt was murdered.  We looked at each other in that moment with a bit of surprise and a lot of compassion.

It was hard to wait for the reading to start.  They had this slide show of Laramie history and quotes running on the projector screen before the live linkup in New York, and it seemed a little strange to my Wyoming native's eyes.  I suppose that the goal was to give some Laramie a history to the audience, but it seriously reinforced Laramie as the Wild West, a lawless area where vigilante justice was the only justice; a lot of the slides focused on "Big Steve" Long and the showdown at the Bucket of Blood saloon.  For instance, one iconic picture showed the work of the "vigilance committee" in action: three dead men with stretched necks, dangling from a makeshift gallows.  Ouch.   (linked at left.) They also talked of Wyoming's equal franchise and first woman governor, so there was some balance, I suppose.  There were also slides of Phelps and his protest signs, which I couldn't look at.

It was a bit of a relief when the live linkup started and Moisés Kaufman came on the screen.  There was one funny moment when Kaufman said, "Okay, we're going to shut off the live feed n--" and the video stopped right there, Kaufman frozen on the screen in the middle of the syllable we'd never hear him finish.  Everybody chuckled a little, and it was time for the reading to begin. 

This time, I found that it helped a lot knowing the actors this time before I watched the production.  Having some kind of relationship with them somehow made the revelations of the new play a little easier to swallow because I understood their connection to the play and their reasons for doing it.  They all basically had something at stake in the performance.  That didn't make their revelations any easier to bear, however: I saw images of people in deep, deep denial concerning Shepard's death, and I saw a lot of people battered and abused by the media.  I don't know if I can get all my thoughts worked out about the performance here, but let me give you a few of my observations. 

For one, I had figured all my connections to that community were gone; I guess I was wrong.  I was surprised at how many of the new interviewees I actually knew, which included Dr. Loffreda and an old boss of mine.  Beth was one of my favorite professors in the English department.   I always thought there was something both beautiful and improbable about Dr. Loffreda: she was eccentric and brilliant, and a subtle reader of texts and culture.  She always seemed so confident and self-composed, and (from a freshman's perspective, at least) she seemed to act on her convictions with little regard to social disapproval, which I admired intensely.   I took just about every class she offered that I could get into.  (Honestly, it's still a little surprising that, between her and Dr. T, I didn't end up in American Lit and Film Studies instead of being a medievalist.)  Her story made me proud to be a product of UW.  Way to go, Dr. Loffreda: the Jackrabbit would like to say 'hello' to you and Dr. T-- and thanks for keeping it up.   

I was not privy to what had gone on during the DOMA vote in Wyoming's state legislature, so I really enjoyed hearing both Connolly's perspective and the goodwill she received from her desk mate.  I'm still suprised (and so pleased) to see the number of Republican legislators who voted it down.  It just goes to show you, I think, that the issue of gay equality isn't a conservative-vs.-liberal issue.  It's a human rights issue.  I was proud to see the conservative Republicans of the kind that I grew up with approaching the DOMA amendment with that kind of philosophy-- and that level of compassion.  It's just one more little spring of hope for living up to being The Equality State.   My favorite line from the play will probably be this one, which I think went as follows:

"Ladies and gentlemen, we are the state of Matthew Shepard and Brokeback Mountain." 

There is so much wrapped up in that statement that it still makes me smile.

The interviews with McKinney and Henderson, however, were devastating.  When their names came up early in the play, I actually found myself shaking my head because I didn't want to hear from them.  I especially didn't want to hear from McKinney; he was much easier to handle as a monster than as a man, and I didn't want to shoulder the responsibility of considering him a human being. Strangely, I couldn't find a single place to sympathize with him during his testimony until he talked about his admiration for Father Roger and his fear of disappointing him.  That made me connect with Aaron McKinney in a way I didn't want, and he became a human being to me then.  I had only met Father Roger on a few occasions, but he was a bit of a hero for me in college; he and one of his parishioners in the Music department (Dr. B) served as examples for my own spiritual transformation. What does it mean that both he and I have such a strong personal admiration for Father Roger, I wonder?  That McKinney can recognize the value of compassion and loyalty even if he has no compassion himself?  Or is it just Father Roger's loyalty he admires?  I don't know. 

Knowing that McKinney had the kind of admiration for Father Roger that I did made me connect with him a little, and that hurt.  Now I just wish that McKinney hadn't spoken of the .357 that he used to bludgeon Matt to death with in the same admiration.  I still don't know what to do with that.    Even for a reading, the staging of this scene was brilliant: from their two bar stools near the front of the stage, the seated actors playing McKinney and his interviewer shared one brief moment of contact, a handshake over an imaginary metal barrier before they read their lines.  It was the only physical contact between the actors I remember from the entire night, and it was powerful. 

As for Henderson?  I had a weird sort of pity for him long before the Epilogue.  My brother had met Henderson before a few times (they both tended to hit the same parties).  My brother said that people used to make fun of his protruding ears and call him "Dumbo."  Everybody laughed at him.   He always seemed to me, and still is, somebody to be pitied-- not because he necessarily deserves it, but because his failures say so much about what it means to be human.  Granted, his lack of self-esteem and personal paralysis made him just as responsible for Matt's death as McKinney, but it didn't make him inhuman to me like McKinney had been for so long.  In a way, it made him more human, as if he were a victim of his own indecision in some small way just like Shepard was. 

But the thing that really outraged me was the silencing of Jonas Slonaker by the Boomerang staff.  Jonas is a little bit of a mystery to me (I can't say as I've ever met him personally), but I and my students tend to identify with him.  Both his common sense and his love-hate relationship with the Western mythos resonates with me.  I, personally, like his resistance to happy endings; Jonas is willing to both challenge a story and keep it from resolving prematurely, and I think that takes a lot of courage.

Granted, I have to keep in mind that we don't get the full text of that letter to the Editor in the Epilogue, so there might have been other reasons it was rejected.  But somehow I don't get the feeling that that's the case.  When Jonas talks of driving out into the middle of nowhere and screaming his head off in helpless rage, I completely understood that impulse-- and it made me burn with outrage for him.   I enjoyed the irony of the "Streisand Effect" that the Editor's rejection caused nonetheless: when she tried to quash his voice, it multiplied.  If she had just let Slonaker have his say after her editorial, then maybe we wouldn't have heard his opinion in all 50 states and internationally from the stage.  That seemed like just desserts. 

So that's all I really have room for here.  Did I bawl?  You bet.  I couldn't bear to hear the new description of the crime scene right before the Intermission.   I cried right through both McKinney and Henderson's interviews.  I was so outraged at McKinney's whining about being cold in jail after he had left a man to die in the frost that I actually called him a "f---ing waste" to "Joe" after the play.  (Sorry, "Joe.")   But I also got to hug and thank all those actors personally for doing what they did that night.  It's totally screwed up my life at the moment and I couldn't sleep for a couple days afterward, but I'm so glad I went.  It's given me a lot to chew over.


1) Close-up of the University of Wyoming marching band, from WyoLibrarian's Flickr Photostream: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
(These new uniforms are SO much nicer than the ones I marched in back in the day!)

2) The funeral scene from The Laramie Project, taken from an Albany high school production.  From PilotGirl's Flick photostream: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

3)  Operation Angel Action reenactment from a 2008 production of The Laramie Project.  Photograph taken by Anthony Chivetta.  Taken from micdsphotos Flickr photostream:
4) "Haunted" churchyard from the Southeastern US, from slworking2's Flickr photostream:
We used to give ghost tours here back in the day when I worked for a tour guide company.  The stories we told here are simply not true... but they are fun. 

5)Westboro protests in Burbank, California, 2008, from k763's Flickr photostream: / CC BY 2.0.  Posted without comment. 

6)  Book on a shelf, by me.

7)  Poster from the 2006 production I had attended during my first year of grad school, picture by me.  It's interesting-- the map overlay they have on the poster includes my hometown, where I graduated high school from.  

8)  Laramie Project 37, originally uploaded by rogerchoover.  Photograph of the performance, with the actor playing Jed Schultz reading his first lines as that character. 

9) Poster for TLP: 10 Years Later, for the Laramie, WY performance.  Courtesy of Elmada's Flickr Photostream: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

10)  "A Candle of Hope," picture in memorial for the hate crime mentioned above,  from Archeia Muriel's Flickr Photostream: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Full story linked in the Flickr page on the image.  

11) Picture from the San Francisco reading of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, taken by Steve Rhodes, from his Flickr photostream: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Rhodes has provided a veritable treasure-trove of links relating to the performance and the Shepard beating on the set page for these photos.