Penny's Story

A cute little drummer living her dream.

Archive for Hate Crimes

The Project of Laramie

So, the other day I saw a live performance of The Laramie Project. It was the first time I had ever seen it in any form. I also got to see the ten-year epilogue, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. Both plays were extremely moving and very well directed and performed. I cried lots. The first play I attended alone, while for the ten-year follow-up I was accompanied by the Darling Boyfriend.

I confess that I vaguely remember the play when it first was done. I certainly remember Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder, but I was still so confused and hiding in 1998 that I couldn’t fully connect with any efforts to make the world better, even from afar simply as a spectator. I was also a little old; I’ve been amazed at how many young people saw the play (or performed in it) in their high schools. Truly amazing. But in 1998, when Matthew Shepard was killed, I was still agoraphobic, repressed, depressed, and even though I at the time thought I was bisexual, I was in deep denial about being trans (even though I knew, ya know? I suppose that’s what “denial” means), and I had never connected with, or really felt connected to, the queer community. So I felt horrible when Matthew Shepard was murdered, but I didn’t connect fully with the fact that I too could be ~hated~ like he was.

Now I joke that, even though I’m a straight woman, my history of transsexualism grants me a lifetime all-access pass to the queer community. That might sound glib, and I really hope it doesn’t. But in some respects I do find it interesting that it was only after my transition that I have felt comfortable embracing the queer community. And while in some respects I feel more like a straight ally, there’s no denying that my history gives me a certain perspective. I have a place in the world that it is what it is, and for me that means a connection to the queer community that will always exist.

And so the plays hit me very strongly. Matthew Shepard was killed because he was gay. We’re approaching the Transgender Day of Remembrance, when we remember folks who were killed in the previous year in hate crimes. I feel that I live a pretty safe life, yet there’s no denying that some people are terrified by my existence. I believe that most hate comes out of fear, and that the unknown is often the scariest thing around. [That’s why, as much as I used to think I would gradually live a fairly stealth life, I’m still telling my story so often and so publicly: if folks are afraid of the unknown, I want them to know that people like me are just ordinary people, and being so open seems the best way for me to do that.] But the reality is that I could be a victim simply because of who I am. I don’t live in constant fear or anything, but it is a sobering thought.

Anyway, the first play tells the story of Matthew’s murder. We meet Matt, members of the community, and the murderers. It is a very complete picture. There are reports from the young man who found Matthew, tied to a fence, clinging to life (Matthew died six days after the attack), the first officer on the scene, and the Emergency Room doctor. The play is a dry account of the townspeople’s words, but it is anything but flat. The words weave together into a compelling narrative. Laramie is a portrayed as a pretty normal town, the proverbial “any town,” with its own character, of course, but a sense of community that is strong and vital. The play introduces us to several gay townsfolk, almost all of whom find Laramie a mixed bag of a place to live. Perhaps my strongest emotional reaction was when the play introduced Matthew’s father.

It feels impossible to give the play a fair synopsis, beyond simply saying that it tries to tell the very complex story of how two young men brutally murdered another simply for being different than them and the community’s reaction to that crime.

The follow-up play, created ten years after Matthew’s murder, tells the story of the town now. I was saddened but how much some of the town’s residents have rewritten history. There are rumors of drugs and robbery (there were no drugs found in any of the three young men’s systems – and the investigating officers were livid at such assertions). There is the sense that the “New York Media” fabricated the hate crime to push their agenda. There is a protectiveness about the town by its residents: they don’t like Laramie being known for a hate crime. The problem with their thinking, to me, is that by saying “it could have happened anywhere,” they’re missing the point that, yes, it could happen anywhere, and that’s why we need to work to end hatred – everywhere.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the second play is the 20/20 report from 2004 which planted the seeds for all the false rumors about Matthew’s murder. The circumstances of the show, it’s obvious agenda, it’s treatment of the real evidence of the trial and investigation, which amounted to ignoring facts in favor of salacious rumor-mongering and victim-blaming was just shocking. At one time I watched 20/20 pretty regularly. I was disappointed that anyone considered a journalist would so distort the truth. Really sad.

There was a very touching part of the second play, when a bench at the University of Wyoming was dedicated to Matthew Shepard, and his father spoke. He had an obviously broken nose, and he told how when Matthew had been alive the two had an informal “competition” going to see who would break their nose more times. His father said that when Matthew had died he was ahead 3 to 2, and that now he had evened the score. And oh how I cried.

Both plays were powerful beyond anything I was expecting. It is so sad that we can let our fear and our hate so get the better of us that we can be driven to such horrible acts. Just sad.

As part of the plays production there were a couple panels organized. I actually sat on one. It was called “Be Part of the Solution” and we talked about ending hate crimes and programs and such. I ended up talking a lot about the camp for trans youth that I was a part of this past summer. The panel included some real heavy-hitters (someone involved with the Matthew Shepard Foundation, someone from GSLEN, someone from GLADD, the director that put on the first high school performance of The Laramie Project, and a couple others). It was sitting on that panel, and realizing that I belonged with the heavy hitters, that I finally realized that I have indeed become an activist. It was a heavy realization.

“Penny Larson, activist for transgender equality.”


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