Chronicle of a Death Foretold
Determinism misses the mark, though, for the linkages between place and event are tricky to fashion. Matt Shepard cannot, of course, explain himself. His killers and their girlfriend-accomplices have gone mute, after bouts of braggadocio that obliterated their credibility. This vacuum has been filled with myriad, and sometimes ghoulish, speculations: The killing was a simple robbery or a hate crime; an act tacitly condoned by the prevailing mores; the result of the killers' loveless childhoods; the impulse of someone on a meth high; a way for the murderers to obliterate the dark shadow of the "wuss within." While there is some truth to be extracted from many of these explanations, the mix is unknowable; the reason Matt Shepard was so brutally put to death most likely remains obscure even to the killers themselves.
Losing Matt Shepard is a powerful meditation on the distortions inherent in the ways we comprehend the world. Comprehending the minute particulars is critical to understanding, and reductionism is always perilous; but there's no avoiding the need to simplify reality in order to make meaning. "We make that move too easily--that move from the narrow strip of fence where Matt died to the big cultural and political weather fronts grinding along overhead," Loffreda writes. "That move is necessary, I think, if we want to change that weather, but the trip should be hard, something we can't map out easily in advance."
This tension, between the larger world and the world in a grain of sand, plays itself out in Laramie, which in the wake of the murder becomes a green room--a place of double consciousness where one's values and actions are constantly under scrutiny, an intrusive probing that leads residents to reframe their own stories, to spin their lives to the media and ultimately to themselves.
In recent years scores of gay men have been even more brutally murdered than Matt Shepard, to no public notice. In the early 1990s, Steve Heyman, a University of Wyoming professor who advised the campus's gay group, was found dead, apparently tossed from a moving car; no one outside Laramie paid any attention. But Shepard's story, replete with its widely circulated, indelible and misleading symbols--the crucifixion that really was a more prosaic hogtying; the setting, in a place far less remote than the camera angles depicted--came to represent all the other incidents of gay violence. It served as a Rorschach blot, a way to filter America's uneasiness about homosexuality, to comprehend our love-hate relationship with community.
Organizations at both ends of the ideological spectrum turned the murder to their apparent advantage. The appearances of a defrocked minister and his tiny flock, and Matthew Shepard: Burn in Hell banners (more wittily, a sign reading Save the Gerbils), were offset by the theatrics of a handful of students whose outsized angels' wings kept the preacher's signs out of camera range. National gay groups made Shepard the centerpiece of their fundraising campaigns, though Loffreda points out that they gave nothing back to the gay people of Laramie itself. SOFAITH (Society of Families Anchored in Truth and Honor) seized the moment to assail gay "behaviors" and policies supportive of gays. A Denver-based theater troupe descended on the town, interviewing hundreds of residents. Out of those interviews came The Laramie Project, first staged in Denver and then on Broadway [see Elizabeth Pochoda, "The Talk in Laramie," June 19]. As theater, it's as flat and featureless as the prairie, stultifyingly innocuous, entirely unrevealing of character or motivation, without insight. The play's weaknesses have less to do with the talent of the playwright than with the raw material. Laramie's residents were suffering interpretation fatigue by the time the tape recorders were turned on. They had polished speeches for the tape recorders but little of consequence to say.
Losing Matt Shepard ends with the political push, ultimately successful, to pass a bias-crimes ordinance in Laramie. At the time of the murder, a hate-crimes bill was stalled in the state legislature, for all the familiar reasons, and the killing swayed few if any lawmakers' votes. Soon after the murder, the Laramie City Council issued a proclamation expressing its sympathy to Matthew Shepard's parents and urging that "the healing process" begin--pop psychology become politics--but a handful of citizens, straight and gay, wanted a more concrete response. Eventually the council passed a measure calling for police training and better record-keeping. The detective who developed the case against the killers, himself a model of compassion and forensic intelligence, dismissively characterized it a "feel-good" gesture. Yet in Laramie--a town so conservative that a gay assistant professor feared acknowledging her sexuality for fear of jeopardizing her chance for tenure; a place so fearful of gay-bashing that the phone number for the AIDS hotline is unlisted, to discourage threatening calls--this tiny political step makes a difference. It puts Laramie on record as committed to protecting the most basic liberties of gay men and lesbians. In these times, and in this place, that's cause for cheer.