Love and Hate in Laramie
Comfort is easy to find in Laramie, if you're a yuppie like me. I feel like I am on vacation because luxury restaurants are so cheap here; my bed-and-breakfast is the nicest I have ever stayed in. By my standards, it is cheap: $57 a night.
And how does it feel to be a lesbian here? Fabulous. Annie Moore's is not only a Victorian filled with sensuous period furniture, it has a copy of Rubyfruit Jungle on the guest bookshelf. Lesbian and gay lovers stay in these sexy little rooms all the time, along with the University of Wyoming's most prestigious visitors. Sometimes the town's yups come to stay for the night just to feel well-off and taken care of. The charming innkeeper, Ann Acuff, who is straight, makes me feel at home by telling about the night she spent at a lesbian bar the last time she was in New York.
Matthew Shepard had much to love about living in Laramie, too; it is a town that caters to moneyed people of any sexual orientation. The guidebooks describe a place that "violates one's expectations of a Wyoming town" (a fascinating verb choice) because it is full of "flower shops, cafes, bookstores, vegetarian restaurants, bars that attract reggae or blues bands, and galleries filled with handcrafted items from all over the planet." In other words, it is very like my own beloved townlet, Park Slope, Brooklyn, which could be the model for gentrified progressive places everywhere. Well-off people move to Laramie by the score from out of state. ("When you buy a million-dollar home in Laramie, it's much, much bigger than a million-dollar home in California," observes Wende Barker, a local progressive politician.) The town is "an oasis of tolerance," says Jason Marsden, an openly gay reporter at the Casper Star-Tribune. "It's the only county in the state that can be counted on to vote Democratic," says Barker.
And it is full to bursting with scrumptious consumer goods. If I weren't here to write about an antigay torture-murder, I would be buying pottery at Earth, Wind and Fire, pricing silver at Green Gold, acquiring delicate, feathery pastries at Jeffrey's Too. Matthew did. He spent money for fun, the way I often do; he bought fabulous clothes; he shelled out money for delightful items to improve his physical appearance in a way that straight men rarely feel entitled to do.
Of course, that's only one side of this story. When Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, both 21 years old, walked into the Fireside Lounge and encountered Matthew Shepard, they might have been looking at a wood nymph. I'm not going to say who was more oppressed, because all three of them can bear that label easily, but their experience was each other's mirror image. When Russell's mother froze to death last January after staggering out of a bar, few people in town were surprised. Russell and his mom, a hotel maid, both lived in the part of Laramie that is home to many of the people who work at the boutiques, restaurants, hotels and houses that the university people enjoy. The government doesn't even pave the streets there. It doesn't plow West Laramie when it snows; the falling-down trailers and junked cars can wait until it melts.
Recently, the City Council refused to appropriate taxpayer funds to put up a deaf child crossing sign in front of a deaf child's home. "Next thing you know, there'll be a blind child wanting a sign," explained councilman E.G. Meyer. As it goes here with deaf children, so it goes here with busboys, manual laborers, cleaning women. On the gleaming streets of downtown, I get my boots shined by a 70-year-old Hispanic man who tells me that he was always pushed off the streets for being Mexican, growing up here.
Actually, in this respect, too, Laramie is a lot like Park Slope, where on a recent Friday morning scores of welfare recipients were tidying up Prospect Park for me as I got ready for my morning run. Pleasure, in both our towns, always seems to come at someone's expense. It's the way we were almost all taught about sex to begin with, as though men always hurt women by getting it, and we gradually learned the same lesson about delights of every kind. Russell and Aaron probably believe it more than most. Russell's late mother was the city's most famous battering victim, and he was severely battered by her boyfriends. Aaron's mother often locked him in a basement during his childhood, and as a result, perhaps, "his opinion of women has never been very high," according to a woman who knew him in high school. She remembers his girlfriend coming to school with black eyes.