Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Matthew Shepard and public life

Last night I saw a reading of “The Laramie Project, 10 years later” sponsored by, among others, Miami University’s Department of Theater. All around the country yesterday, staged readings and productions of this play were being brought to the public to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Matthew Shephard’s death after a brutal slaying motivated by homophobia. This performance intersected with my current research about “the public” – what this space (both actual, virtual and metaphorical) represents and means today.

“The Laramie Project” was a play by the Tectonic Theater Project and later an HBO movie that was based on the interviews done with Laramie residents five weeks after Shepard’s beating. It has supposedly now been seen by more than 30 million viewers. “The Laramie Project, 10 years later” visits the town a decade after the incident to see what has changed. They interviewed many of the same people and tried to see how the community was thinking about the incident, and what has changed for the GLBTQ community in Laramie and in Wyoming. It is a difficult but wonderful presentation. I urge you to see it if you can.

I am fascinated by the way that Shepard’s death has found spaces of expression, action and movement in public life. The Laramie Project represents one artistic vein of that expression, where playwrights, actors, and audiences re-enact and witness the story of Shepherd, his murderer, family, and the people of the town in which he died. The Laramie Project has spawned on-line communities. Shepherd’s death has spawned activism for hate crime legislation, the Shepard Foundation, and a number of other organizations and groups. In Shepard's name, many people in the GLBTQ community and their supporters gather, mourn, commemorate; some of those people take this energy into the political realms of policy-making and legislation on behalf of civil rights for GLBTQ people, as is witnessed by the explosion of activism in support of these causes in recent years.

In the town of Laramie itself, at least as far as how it is represented in “The Laramie Project, 10 years later,” you see the same kinds of discussions and actions around the Shepard’s murder and it’s implications for justice and community in Laramie. But in the performance of “10 years later,” you see how the circulation of meanings around Shepard’s death reflects the divisive and sensationalist world of contemporary political and cultural life. An infamous 20/20 News Hour show in 2004 raised doubts about the motivations of Shepard’s killer despite the clear evidence, including confessions, aired during the trail of his murderers (who are serving multiple life terms). That 20/20 episode asserted that the murder was not related to homophobic hatred but a simple robbery and drug deal gone bad. People interviewed 10 years after Shepard’s death now echo the lies constructed by this 20/20 episode which intersect nicely with our own impulses to ignore and paper over unpleasant truths about ourselves. Matthew’s death wasn’t caused because he was gay, this logic goes. He was killed in a robbery. Murderer’s confessions from the trial, however, reveal he was robbed in the first 10 minutes of the encounter; he was brutally beaten and left for dead well after the robbers had his wallet, which contained all of $30.00.

There are public expressions of this general idea, as well. The conservative right wing of our political culture, through its own media outlets, argue that Shepard’s death was not motivated by hatred at all, and use the 20/20 episode and its half-truths and lies to argue against hate crime legislation. The idea that gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered people do not deserve civil rights creates its own expressions, performances, and activism. It has created a strong set of public ideas and performances since Shepard’s death, passing Defense of Marriage Bills and blocking hate crime legislation in many states.

These public controversies generally are written off now as “the culture wars” in action. But they are not inevitable; they are part of the conditions of our contemporary public life. There are multiple areas of potential agreement between conservative Christians and GLBTQ civil rights activists that might be fruitfully explored and harnessed for political and cultural change that decreases homophobic violence and murder in our society, as one example. “The Laramie Project, 10 years later,” promotes the discovery of these multiple potential sites of agreement when the interview with Shepard’s murderer serves as the climax of the performance. The interviewer is urged, by a Catholic priest who served in Laramie, to get to know the murderer, and try to understand him. The play does not urge an easy excusing of Shepard’s murderer, or a forgiveness of hatred, but a kind of plea to get beyond simplistic characterizations of “us” and “them” while keeping a steady eye on justice. And that is the kind of public performance that, to me, is deserving of the name “public” in aspiration and meaning.

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