Earlier this month marked the 25th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard. On October 6, 1998, Shepard was beaten, tortured and left to die, bound to a fence in a remote Wyoming field, not far from the small town of Laramie. He was found and taken to a hospital where he died from his wounds six days later.
Suspects Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were arrested shortly after. They were charged, tried and convicted of first-degree murder. Both received two consecutive life sentences.
The case received national attention. It also proved a turning point for the LGBTQ+ rights movement once the public learned that Shepard was gay, and that his assailants were motivated by antigay hatred. The case energized the LGBTQ+ movement, assisted by Shepard’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, who became powerful spokespeople against hate crimes. This eventually led to the passage of the nation’s first federal legislation for hate crimes in 2009.
The movement was also propelled by another powerful voice making its way through the country’s cultural zeitgeist, a play called “The Laramie Project,” created by members of the Tectonic Theater Project, a New York-based theater collective.
In the aftermath of Shepard’s death, LGBTQ+ communities nationwide began to stand up in solidarity, mourning and action. Likewise, the members of Tectonic felt called to action. Led by the company’s head writers, Moisés Kaufman and Leigh Fondakowski, a total of ten members of Tectonic made the journey to Laramie, Wyoming to interview residents.
They were initially concerned that the townspeople would be skittish, given the amount of scrutiny by the national media they’d endured in the wake of the murder. However, once people learned that the Tectonic group were not journalists, but artists looking to piece together a true story, they became trusting and extremely forthcoming. The result was more than 200 interviews and more than 400 hours of audio recordings. Once transcribed, the writers spent many hours cutting the raw wordage down to what became “The Laramie Project.”
The play held its world premiere in Denver on February 26, 2000. The cast was composed of the Tectonic members who had first journeyed to Laramie, portraying the people they themselves had interviewed. Six weeks later, the play opened off-Broadway, where it was rapturously received.
The New York Times, in its review, said, “What Mr. Kaufman and his team are after is less a portrait of any person than one of the ethos of a place. In the deliberate, simple formality of its staging, in which eight radiantly clean-scrubbed performers embody 60 different people against Robert Brill’s bare-bones set, ‘Laramie’ often brings to mind ‘Our Town,’ the beloved Thornton Wilder study of life, love and death in parochial New Hampshire…But if ‘The Laramie Project’ nods conspicuously to Wilder, this play is ‘Our Town’ with a question mark, as in ‘Could this be our town?’ There are repeated variations by the citizens of Laramie on the statement ‘It can’t happen here,’ followed immediately by ‘And yet it has.’”
Two years later, a film adaptation of the play was released, which resulted in a massive surge of interest in the stage production. Between January of 2002 and June of 2003, there were hundreds of productions of “The Laramie Project” in high schools, colleges, and amateur theater groups all across the United States.
In the years since, “The Laramie Project” continues to be an invaluable tool in teaching communities, particularly young people, of the consequences of hatred and bigotry. There continues to be countless productions by regional theaters, amateur groups, universities and schools; there have even been reports of some schools making it a part of their 11th or 12th grade reading curriculum.
One of the more poignant results of the various school productions is that Matthew Shepard’s mother, Judy Shepard, frequently flies out to attend student and youth productions. When asked why she does it, she refers to the show’s Playbill and says, “Well, I put Matthew here in my pocket. I know that he’s there, and then I can go home.”
Clearly, Matthew Shepard’s memory and legacy survives after 25 years, and will continue to survive. But then, the debates sparked by his death, and the hatred that caused his death, are also still both alive. Speaking to Playbill Magazine, writer Kaufman says, “I often get asked, why does it continue to be relevant? And I feel that it’s unfortunate that [Matthew Shepard] continues to be so relevant. We look forward to the day when it ceases to be relevant, but we’re still engulfed in a lot of the same arguments.”
One aspect of Shepard’s legacy, in addition to the ongoing life of “The Laramie Project,” is the Matthew Shepard Foundation, founded by his parents Judy Shepard and Dennis Shepard. According to their website, “The Matthew Shepard Foundation’s mission is to amplify the story of Matthew Shepard to inspire individuals, organizations and communities to embrace the dignity and equality of all people. Our work is an extension of Matt’s passion to foster a more caring and just world. We share his story and embody his vigor for civil rights to change the hearts and minds of others to accept everyone as they are.”