Love and Hate in Laramie

Love and Hate in Laramie

Research assistance: Robin Reardon.


Laramie, Wyoming

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.

Who’s on top and who’s on the bottom seems to be a matter of enormous intensity in this city, perhaps even more than in the rest of America. The feminist movement has never been very strong here, and the incidence of rape and domestic violence against women and children is extraordinarily high. Last year, approximately one in twelve local women reported battering or sexual assault on herself or a child to Laramie’s antiviolence project. That’s shocking, considering that more than half of all rapes and battering cases are never reported at all. Most media coverage has attributed Shepard’s murder to the supposed backwardness and endemic homophobia of rural people, inflaming the bitterness Laramieans have felt for years over the fact that the rest of the country sees them as dumb yokels. (The uneducated and poor are especially despised here because of the sense that they contribute to that image.)

In fact, Laramie was the likeliest place in the state for an antigay murder to happen, not because of its backwardness but because of its progressiveness and its pockets of wealth and poverty. Explaining why gets tricky, because we are in the realm of cultural memes that bear only the slightest relation to reality. Comfort and voluptuousness (and, of course, consumerism) have been linked in the public mind with effeminacy and homosexuality for decades. Most antigay murders, in fact, aren’t committed on the prairie but in liberal cities like New York and San Francisco, where the perception of gay privilege and boys’ brutally inculcated fear of being feminine results in scores of antigay murders every year.

The left has never been particularly eager to examine the ways that class, victimhood and violence are coded in the language of gender, but examining this could help us understand why so many boys and men of all classes between the ages of 15 and 22 are so worried about being on the bottom that they search gay-friendly neighborhoods for gay men to attack. Cultural dogma holds that men must demonstrate at every turn that they are not on the bottom, even if they actually are.

Laramie, the only college town in a state where a number of people hunt for food, is obsessed with status, and Russell and Aaron were reviled for being “losers,” dropouts and poor. They were also addicted to crystal meth. Long ago, Russell had been an honors student and wanted badly to go to college, but instead he wound up as a roofer earning $12,000 a year. Aaron, for his part, saw himself as such a moron that when he won some money in an insurance settlement after his mother’s death from a botched hysterectomy, he went out and bought an enormous necklace that displayed his nickname, “Dopey.”

Almost no one in our society is comfortable seeing straight men as victims, certainly not the men themselves. But until they do, men like Russell and Aaron will continue to prove their nonvictim status by attacking men like Matthew. And no matter how many gay people homophobes know–like the ones Russell and Aaron knew in Russell’s girlfriend’s family–gay people will continue to be seen as the enemy.

Picture the three of them at the Fireside, a bar downtown where university and non-university people mix. Even Aaron and Russell’s friends treat them like wimps–they often put Aaron in a headlock and call him “the shrimp”–and tonight the Fireside’s bartender is shunning them because literally they have dirty hands.

And maybe also because they can’t afford to tip. They don’t even have the $5.50 to pay for the pitcher of beer they just drank, and they’re turning their pockets inside out looking for it, annoying the bartender. It’s humiliating. All their cash is in nickels and dimes. Then a beautiful boy at the end of the bar asks if he can help.

McKinney and Henderson are small men, but this boy is smaller. He’s the same age as they are but wearing incredibly stylish clothes, a clean shave, shiny patent leather shoes. His hair is bleached; his hands on the bar are white and flowerlike. He himself looks like an emblem of everything they have never been allowed to be. He’s a child-man, or looks like one: still wearing braces, but with enough money to pay for strangers.

The bartender loves him. Matthew thanks (and tips) him with a marvelous politeness after every round. Russell and Aaron barely know how to speak that way, like someone who’s fluent in Arabic, French and German, who was able to be openly gay in high school (at a fabulous private school in Switzerland); like someone who’s already chosen a career in international human rights. They stare at him across the bar (witnesses differ on whether they take his cash or not). Matthew is, quite probably, being flirtatious. (“Matthew was flirty with everyone,” says Jason Marsden, who was a close friend.)

But these two boys have faces that might be read as gay, and Henderson is actually cute. There are good grounds for believing that something passed, both ways, between them and Shepard.

Media reports to the contrary, gay-bashing is an erotic crime, not just a violent one. Most bashers, like Russell and Aaron on this evening, proposition their victim before they kill. And it is easy to see why Matthew would arouse these feelings. His very charm and generosity are seductive. Russell and Aaron could never give in to the allure of such flirtatious femininity in another man, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t felt it: Most men do. For Russell and Aaron it is an attraction tinged with envy. They have never been allowed to be this feminine–or even, you might say, this nice. They have never been allowed to take such pleasure in fabrics and textures as this boy is taking in his expensive clothes, but they have wanted to.

Matthew’s interest in them makes him infinitely more threatening; this feminine boy has made a masculine pass by offering to pay for their drinks. His wealth threatens to put them on the bottom where they have always been, but this time, in relation to a tiny, femmy boy.

He tells them he is gay and they say that they’re gay, too. “Let’s go back to Aaron’s place,” they say, “and get to know each other better” (as Aaron’s girlfriend will recount on 20/20). Once he gets into their truck, Aaron takes out his gun and smashes the butt of it into Matthew’s head. “We’re not gay, and you just got jacked,” he yells.

I’m struck by how that sentence resembles an equation: We’re not gay and you just got jacked. Russell and Aaron aren’t “gay”–here, a synonym for “powerless”–because Matthew just got “jacked.”

As they beat him with the .357 Magnum and their fists, Russell laughs out loud. They take his wallet from him, further confirming their superiority. Shepard begs for his life, which only makes him more equivalent in their eyes to the piece of nothing that they want him to be.

Henderson and McKinney drive him out to a prairie owned by the Warren Livestock Company, where everyone in Laramie goes to commune with nature. People bike and run and walk their dogs here; and though the livestock company owns it, people act like it is everyone’s. The prairie is windswept and rugged, and Russell and Aaron would have seen incredibly beautiful stars at midnight when they took him there.

I think it’s significant that they killed Shepard in such a beautiful place. Many people have noticed something strangely religious about this crime, and the attack looks more and more so the more you walk around the site. The fence to which they tied him is surrounded by long, flat stones that look like altar stones. And the fence itself is small, too tiny to keep out even a baby deer; it is purely symbolic, like a gold cross on a chain. It is the idea of a fence, and that’s enough; they were demonstrating the idea of their election, their superiority. The press, in calling it a crucifixion, was not far off; it certainly looks like a site for holy sacrifice.

While they’re whaling on Shepard, they repeatedly hit him in the groin. They have to hit him in the groin: What else will finally get across the idea that they are not the victims? One thing that is perpetually underemphasized in the discussion of gay-bashings is the sense of overcoming one’s disgrace and terror. Almost all the antigay murderers in Arthur Dong’s documentary Licensed to Kill mention their fear of being raped or beaten up, as they were by men in the past. In a major study of gay-bashers, almost all expressed fears of being raped by the men they sought to beat. In the minds of bashers, gay-bashing means not being attacked anymore (never mind that gay people haven’t hurt them). Aaron and Russell, too, have been victims their whole lives, and now they want to be the opposite.

That’s why they sacrifice him. Even after they force him to tell his address so that they can rob his house, even after his nose is broken and his skull is cracked, there remains a taint of victimhood on them that they cannot expunge except by leaving Shepard tied there in their stead. They even remove his shoes, out of some insane fear that he might get up and walk away. He isn’t spread-eagled, like Christ on the cross, but lying on the ground tied by his wrists, like an animal offering.

In that holy place, it feels like all their worthlessness has been redeemed. Shepard’s face is covered in blood.

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