Living In Laramie: After Matthew Shepard -The Toast

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I set out to write about the psycho-geographical valence of Laramie. That term was my coinage and I was proud of it. The emotional weight of coming to this haunted, haunting place to study. Weather-torn fences staggering out into the bleak windswept stretches of the prairie, the contemplative hush of the snowfall, the blue sky, the burning stars. Place myself in that landscape and the reflection of that landscape in me.

The landscape of Laramie is the frame for Matt Shepard. The published script for The Laramie Project shows a photograph of the highway into town under the blue sky of Wyoming. This same photograph appears on the poster for the film version. The movie opens with a view of a pale sunrise over the train tracks, then a shot of the mountains beyond the oldest church steeple. The title card appears over that prairie, across that placid blue. The set for the production I saw in San Francisco chose a backdrop of blue sky and lenticular clouds.

The title credits for The Matthew Shepard Story are superimposed over a warm sunrise; the camera draws us down from the sky to the fence where the title character has been executed. When his mother visits the place at the very end she looks out to the distant mountains and says, “This is the last thing he saw. It’s beautiful. I didn’t expect that.” 

Dennis Shepard, Matt’s father, gives this speech in the last courtroom scene, a truncated quote from Dennis Shepard’s real speech: “But he wasn’t alone. He had his longtime friends with him. The beautiful night sky, the daylight, and the sun to shine on him one last time. He had the smell of Wyoming sage brush, and the scent of pine trees from the snowy range.” 

Laramie’s most famous book about the tragedy, Beth Loffreda’s Losing Matt Shepard, opens with, “Perhaps the first thing to know about Laramie, Wyoming is that it is beautiful.  On most days the high-altitude light is so precise and clear that Laramie appears some rarified place without need of an atmosphere.”

This second semester of my MFA, I took a workshop with Bhanu Kapil, the program’s visiting writer for the year. Bhanu carries a Tarot deck around in a green drawstring bag, and asks the people she meets to choose cards for spot readings. Her Tarot cards aren’t the common Rider-Waite deck with its stained-glass arcana; the faces of her deck were painted by a Tarot scholar and artist named Rachel Pollack.

I drew the Fool card, which Bhanu said was auspicious. Pollack’s Fool is a woman in a purple robe, arms outflung, leaping or flying towards a sere brown landscape slashed by black suture lines. Above her head a crow flies, wings spread wide like her arms. According to Bhanu, this Fool represented myself, about to start on a life-changing journey. The desert is the prairie, the crow the “crow of Wyoming.”  She drew my attention to the broken lines scattered into the middle distance: these were tentative routes for the traveler to follow, multiple maps, and the fence posts that chase and bracket Laramie.

Bhanu said that she was very interested in the geography of literature, the importance of place in the creative endeavor of writing, and I said that yes, it was remarkable to be writing here in Laramie, and she said, yes.

This is the most colorful version of a conversation I’ve had with every visiting writer and several faculty members, any time anyone hears what I am and what I’m writing about. “Wow,” they say. That’s intense. That’s very intense. And I agree that it is intense. And none of us ever mention Matthew Shepard’s name or his murder, but Matt is all we ever mean. I take responsibility for my part in all this. I’ve certainly contributed: I called Laramie a “Golgotha” in conversation with the head of the English department.

I have tried to honor the conviction that Laramie is a beautiful place whose public image has been warped by the murder that happened here. The idea that Laramie has pride of place in the narrative about Matthew Shepard because of its beauty or complexity or humanity or endurance. The idea that it is sad that Laramie must be special for this reason.

That narrative is an affectation, for me and I believe for Laramie. I’m not interested in unlocking the riddle of Laramie or decoupling the paradox of Laramie. I have no investment in its metanoia except as a very pragmatic concern for my own safety. I don’t say that as a judgment on Laramie, or a rebuke to the people who love this place and are at home here, and who are trying to ensure my safety and honor Matthew Shepard’s memory. I came to this small town without any interest in the landscape, spiritual or actual. I planned to write in isolation, complete my MFA, leave as soon as I could. I came despite Laramie, not because of it.

To be fair to Laramie, an attempt to locate personal outrage or grief over my life in this place would founder in anticlimax. There’s nothing eldritch here. I’m not really haunted. No sadness particulate in the air I breathe, no fear ghosting along my skin, nobody attacking or even slighting me, although sometimes small kids stare at me in stores.

I learned about Laramie from a distance: print and television stories about the murder and trial, documentaries and news specials about the aftermath, a play, a made-for-TV movie, elegiac and deeply cynical books. I had no connection to the town apart from the fact of Matthew Shepard’s murder, and no connection to Matt Shepard apart from its motive. I grew up in the suburbs of San Francisco, an area famous for its progressive values and its large and vibrant LGBT community.

Matthew Shepard has talismanic significance for me, for us, and that extends to Laramie. Friends back home visibly startle when I tell them that I am living in Laramie. On the phone on the train in San Francisco, I mentioned returning to Laramie and an older gay man whipped around in his seat to stare at me. Laramie is the site of Matthew Shepard’s murder, the place that reminded us that people would kill us for who we were. Laramie where the threat of violence we all face became real.

I want to talk about the valence of this death from far away. I was fifteen years old when Matthew Shepard was murdered, in tenth grade. I was young enough at the time that it was shocking to me that someone could die even after they had been taken to the hospital to be cared for. My parents had to explain to me a day or two into the vigil that there was no hope. His parents were nerving themselves to pull him away from the machines guarding his body so that he could complete his death.

I followed the coverage of the trial, in the newspapers we all still read, although that was also a foregone conclusion. No one around me disagreed that his murderers should go to prison for the rest of their lives. Almost nobody blamed Matthew Shepard, or argued that he had contributed to his murder. There were exceptions—kids in my class who said they thought it should happen more often—but consensus held that this was terrible, that it should never have happened, that it needed to change.

The picture we saw was always the same picture, his face subtly distorted, elongated like the face of an icon, as though the page were already being turned. He appeared every day above or below the fold until after his death and burial. 

Matthew Shepard’s death became emblematic of homophobic hate crimes. He embodied the negative possibility of being queer, the extreme possibility of violence, the weight of moral responsibility. He was the saint of our fear and remorse. We were meant to understand Matthew Shepard’s story as transformation, the point at which our country learned that killing someone for being gay was wrong, these people had parents, their communities would feel shock and then have to live with guilt. It is, I will tell you, profoundly disorienting to watch your country balk at condoning murder.

When Matthew Shepard died, most LGBT people on television died as well. Although our subtext was slowly becoming text, misery and queer identity were comorbid and queer status was often fatal. There had been some gay men who were mostly used to talk about HIV. Mostly they confessed their HIV status and imminent death from AIDS shyly, as though not wanting to trouble anyone. Then they would say something gallant about how they had scant months to live. Once I saw an episode of Designing Women in which a gay character explained that he had AIDS, asked the ladies to plan his funeral, and reappeared a quarter of an hour later as a pine box.

After Matthew Shepard died, homophobic violence began to kill us all instead. I’ve taken an informal straw poll from television, books, and movies, everything I can remember off the top of my head. This list is not meant to be scientific, and I should also explain that I sought out any representation I could find. These are all contemporary to my own adolescence less than twenty years ago through my early twenties ten years ago. A few are HIV/AIDS-related, but most aren’t.

Dead, dead, beaten to death, dead, fired and then dead, dying albeit with great panache, instantly dead, beaten and homeless, murdered, murdered by a john, brutally gang-raped and beaten half to death, fired, burned to death, jailed for life, dead, bereft, shot to death, possessed and driven mad, gone, thrown into a river to drown, dead, suicide, assisted suicide, jailed, beaten and exposed, dead, dead, shot in the back, beaten comatose and left permanently disabled.

Here in my notes I see raped with a question mark, but I wasn’t sure whether to include that because it was a show I read about, not a show I remember seeing.

As I write this, I realize that I have left out a rape, a gang rape, another deadly fire, an explosion, near-drowning, and two attempts at suicide, although these cover only three characters in total. And, in fact, another brutal rape accompanied by a beating that was almost murder. And a defenestration. Then there was The Matthew Shepard Story itself, which I watched in large part because it had a gay protagonist.

Growing up, I was far more likely to see people like me being brutally murdered than being happy. And I sought out these rehearsals of violence because at least we would have time onscreen, maybe a love scene before someone came along to end the story. That was what awareness looked like. Several of these characters looked like Matthew: slight, blond, diffident, boyish. I don’t know whether the resemblance was intentional, or whether it needed to be.

I think we all taught ourselves that being queer could be very dangerous, that it stood a not-insignificant chance of getting us killed, that we were at terrible risk of violence in our communities, and that they, most of you, had failed, and would probably fail again, to protect us. That this was heartbreaking.

“Bury Your Gays” unwinds on into hundreds of examples, but I think I gathered something a little more insidious than risk. It isn’t just that we’re missing presumed dead on television, or that we have become so saturated with graphic depictions of brutal violence against LGBT characters that we respond to it as cliché, as lazy writing.

I managed to grow up without the idea that being queer was evil, that this was the wages of sin. Lesbianism was a muddled, dull, dumpy trait. Like being overweight or dropping out of college. To be a lesbian was to fail, or at least not succeed. We didn’t have ambition, clearly.

LGBT people in general had sort of missed the point, foundered in anticlimax. Queerness could have a certain level of glamour and dramatic power, but only in association with death. To be murdered was to take on a much better significance, to truly become relevant to the straight people who otherwise didn’t have much interest in you. I didn’t have any desire to die. I didn’t envy Matthew Shepard.

But I came to believe that the most noble, enduring, intense expression of queer identity was tragedy. We regained dignity and humanity when and if we died. When we died, we were welcomed back into the church. When we died, we became the beloved children of our grieving parents. When we died, we were mourned as brilliant creative minds. We gained potential when it was destroyed. While we lived, we didn’t accomplish or amount to much. We weren’t interesting or important to you, we didn’t teach you anything. We weren’t really even there.

When I try to recall happy protagonists in love from that same period, all the people holding the potential shadowed by deaths like Matthew Shepard’s death, I’m at a loss. I had Ellen, two years before Matt died, the exception proving the rule. She was a watershed, and I remember commentators asking, “Can there be a lesbian sitcom?” And I remember that she became happy, and found a girlfriend, and then immediately got canceled, because the answer was no. I remember television critics—well-intentioned liberal people—saying quite seriously that her aggressive lesbian plotlines were a valid reason to tune her out. I can’t remember ever seeing a wedding.

This is part of the psycho-geographical significance of Laramie: the purest expression of who we are is a memorial. Our purpose is to die so that you can gather to mourn us, so that this stark and beautiful landscape can cover us, so that you can meditate on the lives we don’t have.

I know that the memorial prepared in the wake of Matthew Shepard’s death is meant for his own life, his family and friends and home. I know that it is meant as protection and reconciliation, and that it included a good-faith attempt to save the other queer kids out there, to intervene for my sake. I know it has had some concrete effect in the world, including increased support for anti-discrimination laws, visibility, and marriage equality. His father said he would be thrilled to know that, and maybe so.

I believe that Laramie wanted to respond to that tragedy as a community with an identity of its own, to come to terms with the historical moment of Matthew Shepard’s death, to create change in the aftermath of this tragedy. But I believe that this has shifted, in a very human and well-intentioned way, into meditating on the historical and social significance of Laramie, and the tragedy of living in this aftermath.

Because now I’m here, an actual lesbian living in Laramie, and well-intentioned straight people keep asking me what it’s like to be here in this place that became infamous through no real fault or virtue of its own. As though I become a more tragic form of lesbian just by walking down Grand Street. As though I relate to Matthew better here, in Laramie.

I met a young woman the other month who had no idea who Matthew Shepard was. She was in her early twenties, so she would have been a young girl when he was killed. She was from Indiana, visiting this town, and it was startling to me and maybe to you that she can exist already, only seventeen years after Laramie became the town where Matt Shepard died.

When I told one of my faculty mentors about this woman, he said, “Thank God, thank God.”  He is a Laramie native, and he went to grade school with Matt Shepard. He feels this memorial as fixation, as a thankless stigma that warps perception of this place, hiding its truth from public view. I agreed with him like I’ve agreed with everyone who’s told me how sick they are of this. I note a certain weary defensiveness creeping into my own voice when I talk about Matt, his status as a native son of Wyoming. I make reference to his whiteness, his youth, that he was chosen when so many of us are volunteered. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be unfamiliar with this story.

If there is a way in which this memorial is complicated or problematic, it isn’t the stigma it levies on this great little town, or the complexity it steals from Laramie’s psycho-geographical landscape, or the way Laramie’s physical landscape has become an arena in which we are forced over and over again to relive this native death. So often that ignorance reads like a form of grace, like restoration.

There are so many ways I could end this. I can look out my window into the unseasonably blue sky. I could offer up some conciliatory image of the beauty of this place, which is real and open to reflection, for the facile transformation of my own words. I could say I’ve met a lot of wonderful people here. I could accept some of the blame for confusing tragedy with dignity and admit that I understand this temptation too, to turn my history into a lyric about sorrow and my enemies. I’m a writer, an academic. I know there’s very little distinction sometimes between giving voice to a group of people and making a name from them.

I want to tell a different story, although it isn’t from Laramie. Two friends of mine live together in Chicago. I call them—privately and with affection—my aspirational gay friends. They have careers and restore furniture. They iron their shirts. They are churchgoers. They were featured in a commitment ceremony last year, timed to coincide with Illinois legalizing the marriage they had solemnized in their church several years before. There were pictures on facebook of them with a dozen other couples standing up in church together to celebrate. They posted their wedding album again this summer, because now we can get married everywhere, Laramie included.

My point is not that their narrative should replace any other, or that we should all be like this couple. I don’t want to forget that people in my community are still being killed. One woman, Taja Gabrielle de Jesus, stabbed to death in a stairwell in my home city on February 1st. I don’t aspire to be less familiar with our dead.

But when I was sixteen, living in California in the shadow of Laramie, the idea that I could rejoice in love and desire was unthinkable. The idea that I was made to live and rejoice was unknown in my psycho-geographical landscape, far less natural than loneliness and death. The idea that I could marry someday was an impossibility, even while marriage began to gain momentum in my home state and around the country.

I carried that photo of the smiling couple and their smiling friends around in my head for days, surprised by how much delight I could feel, what startling assurance it was just to see them hundreds of miles away.

If there is reconciliation on the other side of that sunlit horizon, significance in that blue sky, it isn’t my chance to make a pilgrimage out of my time here. It isn’t a new lyric for sadness or a new frame for grief.  It won’t happen when we all forget about Matt Shepard, leaving Laramie free to talk about something else. We will own it when our joy is as sustained and sustaining a note as our grief and our fear.     


(Photo via)

Jess White is an MFA candidate at the University of Wyoming. She has published editorial pieces with Al Jazeera English online. She writes on LGBT and gender issues.

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