Bloomsburg’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) and Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transsexual (LGBT) Commission presented a screening of “The Laramie Project” as part of Bloomsburg University’s “Coming Out Week” events and in recognition of the tenth anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, which took place on Oct. 12, 1998.
“Coming Out Week” was planned this year as part of “National Coming Out Day”, which is Oct. 11. Week-long events have been organized by Bloomsburg’s GSA and LGBT Commission.
“The Laramie Project” is a documentary based off of a play of the same name. The play is a collection of interviews involving residents of Laramie, Wyoming, who discuss Matthew Shepard and the aftermath of the murder in the town.
On the night of Oct. 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a gay man, was driven by two men, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, to a remote area of Laramie where he was robbed, tied to a fence post, beaten severely and left for dead. Shepard was discovered 18 hours later, in a coma and died in the early morning hours of Oct. 12 due to brain trauma caused by severe head injuries.
Almost immediately after the attack and the unfolding of the story, Laramie began to receive national, and even international, attention due to the allegations that Shepard was targeted by his killers primarily because of his sexual orientation.
After Shepard’s death, members of New York’s Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie and conducted over 200 interviews with friends of both the victim and his killers, townspeople and those involved in the investigation and trial.
During the trial, Henderson pled guilty to kidnapping and felony murder and agreed to testify against McKinney to avoid the death penalty. He was sentenced to two consecutive life terms.
McKinney was found guilty of kidnapping and felony murder, but as the jury was deliberating the possibility of sentencing him to death, Shepard’s parents spoke out, which resulted in McKinney being sentenced two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole.
The film, and the play, base themselves off of these facts and give a much more heart-wrenching feeling while depicting these events.
In the film, Matthew’s father speaks of his late son to the jury and says that McKinney may be shown mercy, even though he showed none to Matthew. He says that then McKinney can live a long life – and thank Matthew for it every day.
The film testimonials given by members of the community are comprised of either the actual words of those interviewed, or paraphrasing. A common feeling with local residents is the shock that these assailants were people who had grown up in the town and that everyone knew.
Matthew Shepard was a student at the University of Wyoming when he was killed. The members of the theater company conducting interviews spoke with the director of the University’s theater department, who put on a production of “Angels in America,” a play depicting the struggles of homosexuals and hate crime, in the following year.
Much controversy was reported about not only the town or the state of Wyoming, but society in the western part of the United States and also the idea of hate crimes throughout the world.
At the time, citizens led pride parades and marches across the country. Openly gay celebrity, Ellen Degeneres, led Matthew’s memorial service. Then-President Bill Clinton began forward momentum of hate crime legislation to be introduced on the national level, but such legislation has yet to be passed in Congress. Reports say, however, that current Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, is still committed to getting the Matthew Shepard Act passed in the United States.
The film uses re-enactments of the interviews, which feature actors the likes of Steve Buscemi, Christina Ricci, Laura Linney, Janeane Garofalo and Joshua Jackson. It also consists of actual news reports broadcast during the days between Shepard’s attack and his death, as well as the months during the trial.
After the film had concluded, many in the audience were wearing a few tears on their faces. Some may have not seen the film before and were experience the emotion for the first time, while others may just feel so deeply for Matthew Shepard no matter how many times they’ve seen it.
Members of GSA and LGBT then led a small candlelight vigil outside near the quad in remembrance of Matthew Shepard and what his death has meant to so many people. Emotions were high as some expressed times of hardship they have dealt with.
The date of “National Coming Out Day” being just one day prior to Shepard’s death is merely a coincidence, since the celebrated day began in 1988 and is observed in several nations around the world.
Bloomsburg’s GSA acknowledged “National Coming Out Day” last year with a cake and reception but president Ashley Ryman said, “This year, we thought we’d celebrate more prominently.”
Ryman says the point of “National Coming Out Day” and the celebration of “Coming Out Week” is to give a face to the term and bring to light that gay students are just like other students and want to be accepted.
Note: This article also appears in the Oct. 16 issue of The Voice.