On a bitingly cold October night two years ago in Laramie, Wyoming, a biker came upon a young man, unconscious, his sweet face ruined by a rain of blows, bound to a fence with ferocious tightness. Rushed to a hospital, he lingered for five days in the twilight world between life and death, never regaining consciousness.
Even before his death, this young man, Matthew Shepard, had been molded into an icon whose name and image were known to the world. Overnight, he became the centerpiece of a Princess Diana-like cascade of candlelight vigils, more astonishing because of their spontaneity, the inspiration as well for prayer meetings and angry protests. Meanwhile, Laramie was also being remade, tagged by the media as a town without pity.
In the months that followed, the Matthew Shepard story was ceaselessly retold and re-spun. There were stories dissecting the murder and re-creating the events leading up to it. There were biographical sketches of the victim–everyone's brother, everyone's son or secret lover; accounts that constructed, and afterward tried to tear down, the myth of innocence despoiled. There were renderings of the killers, hapless and shiftless characters, caught by the police even as Matt lay dying, young men whose biographies could have been lifted straight from Boys Don't Cry. And there were stories about the place itself, variously portrayed as Our Town and living hell, where these events occurred [see Donna Minkowitz, "Love and Hate in Laramie," July 12, 1999].
The print reporters and TV crews came and went, migrating with the seasons like whales–on the scene in the aftermath of the killing; back again for the killers' days in court. In their wake came those who saw in the tragedy the stuff of film or theater, as well as celebrities like Elton John and Peter, Paul and Mary, resuscitated for the occasion, who charged $42,500 for a benefit concert that wound up losing money.
Beth Loffreda arrived in Laramie a few months before the murder to take up a teaching job at the university, and she's still there. Losing Matt Shepard benefits greatly from the long-view perspective, as well as from Loffreda's personal struggle to come to terms with her adopted hometown.
In the tradition of Melissa Fay Green's Praying for Sheetrock, another beautifully told tale of love and violence in small-town America, Beth Loffreda has crafted a richly layered narrative that encompasses both the deed and the community where it occurred. Laramie is as liberal as things get in the pridefully insular world of Wyoming, a state with fewer than half a million souls, little known to the rest of the nation. The state university is there, its faculty listing slightly to the left, and there are trace elements of "Bo-Bo" life, decent cappuccinos and stylish pottery on offer. But Laramie can't be confused with Austin or Madison–its values are far less worldly, its tacit code of conduct narrower and more rigid. To those who belong, Laramie embodies the best of the American past: unforced hospitality, concern for one's neighbors. Yet many people who live there are treated as if they don't belong. Latinos and Native Americans talk about themselves as outside the pale–exotics if not threats, the subject of unapologetic stares and sometimes worse. Though Wyoming calls itself the "Equality State," the people who live on the wrong side of the tracks in Laramie, their trailers fronting unpaved streets–among them, the men who killed Matt Shepard–are similarly excluded.
Longtime Laramie residents recite that their town "is a 'live and let live' kind of place–we don't get into other people's business," yet there isn't much breathing room for difference. For those who don't fit into the corseted little universe, the pathway to survival entails leading a "don't ask, don't tell" life. When Matt Shepard walked into the Fireside Bar dressed to the nines, his patent-leather shoes gleaming in the light, he was violating the code, to shudderingly terrible consequence. In this sense, the killing was as predictable and overdetermined as the one in 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.