Theatre, Legislation Are Part Of Matthew Shepard’s Legacy

Murder of young gay man has sparked action in government and the arts

On October 7, 1998, 21-year old gay college student Matthew Shepard was abducted, robbed, brutally beaten and left tied to a fence in an isolated area outside Laramie, Wyoming. Five days later, he died in a Colorado hospital. His death galvanized the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community to take political action and work to stop hate crimes against LGBT people.

Eleven years later, Shepard’s story continues to impact the national conscience and the struggle for equal federal protections. Two separate versions of the Matthew Shepard Act, officially named the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, have passed this summer both in the U.S. Senate and in the U.S. House of Representatives. The differences between two must be reconciled before being submitted for President Obama’s signature.

The President said during his campaign that he supports the Act, which would expand existing federal hate crimes law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

To the backdrop of this momentous occasion, Shepard’s story has once more been written for the stage. The Laramie Project, a play created a decade ago by New York-based Tectonic Theater Project, told the story of the murder and its effect on Laramie residents, through more than 200 interviews the crew took in the town. It is one of the most best-attended LGBT justice-themed theatrical works, and an eloquent testament to the activist power of theatre.

The Tectonic Theater Project have now created an epilogue to the play. The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later explores the ways in which the town and its residents have changed, through talks with many of the original interviewees. Slated to premiere in early October across the country, the play has already caused controversy because it gives a voice to Matthew’s convicted killer, Aaron McKinney.

Based on more than 10 hours of face-to-face interviews actor and writer Greg Pierotti conducted with McKinney in the latter’s jail cell, this segment is the first time Shepard’s story has been unapologetically intertwined with that of his killers in this piece of activist art. The Associated Press, after receiving a copy of the script from the production company, reported that McKinney is portrayed as remorseful in regards to Shepard’s family and his own upbringing, stating he is sorry he did not measure up to his father’s expectations.

McKinney also, according to the script, claims the crime was intended to be a robbery, though he does acknowledge his anti-LGBT attitudes played a part in his choice of the victim.

“Well, he was overly friendly. And he was obviously gay,” the AP quotes McKinney’s lines in the script. “That played a part…his weakness. His frailty. And he was dressed nice. Looked like he had money.”

Many queer rights activists have expressed concern at giving McKinney such a strong voice in the sequel, especially since it doesn’t seem that McKinney’s remorse is in any way about Matthew.

According to the AP, part of McKinney’s role in the epilogue’s script reads “As far as Matt is concerned, I don’t have any remorse,” while another adds: “If I could go back and not be the one who killed him, I would. But I am better off here, myself. I’m doing way better in here than I ever was out there.”

Still, the AP reported that more than 1,000 professional and amateur actors will be appearing in the play across the country. The New York City premiere, scheduled for October 12 at the Lincoln Center, will feature a pre-show hosted by Glenn Close.

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