Last semester, as a new faculty member at Western Reserve Academy (OH), I taught a Queer Literature and Theory course. In our second week of class, I shared a Huffington Post article that cited an alarming increase in hate violence homicides against LGBTQ-identified people over the past year. “According to the report, an 86 percent increase in hate violence homicides in the U.S. last year makes 2017 the deadliest year yet for the LGBTQ community.”
Twenty years ago this week, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old college student, died after being brutally beaten in small town Laramie, Wyoming. His crime was being gay. Three years after his murder, Moises Kaufman and the Members of the Tectonic Theater Project debuted The Laramie Project, a dramatization of experiences of different Laramie personalities after the murder.
Since one of the play’s purposes is to hold a mirror to how a community thinks and lives, I would like to consider the state of LGBTQ+ inclusion in independent schools as we remember the legacy of Matthew Shepard. Sure, we like to point how far we have come as a society with regard to treatment of LGBTQ+ folks. But as we see in The Laramie Project, an often refrained “live and let live” attitude does not necessarily affirm, accept, include, protect, or offer a space to live and learn.
When I learned that the theater department at my new school would be performing The Laramie Project, I decided to have my Queer Literature and Theory course read the play, and we collaborated to write an essay, an LGBT timeline, and explanations of references in the play for insertion in the program. I knew that my students had not lived through and likely did not know the story. I felt especially motivated to explore the play and its depiction of hate and reckoning with hate for the queer kids.
At intermission during a dress rehearsal, the director—Donalee Ong—turned to me, two rows back in a virtually empty room. I was on the brink of an “ugly cry.” We talked about how we imagined different people in the community reacting to the play. This conversation paralleled one I had with my class earlier in the day. One of my students, Casey, a cast member, said there were other students who openly expressed opposition to the play because “they didn’t see homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle.”
Donalee said that sometimes when a person would ask her or a cast member about the play—something innocuous like, “What’s the play about?”—that their reaction was discomfort. And that discomfort wasn’t due to language, violence, or visuals, of course. The advisory for the production could have easily hit the real issue: “Warning: GAY!” I kept wondering if this whole production was a way to interrogate just how inclusive our community is, especially with regard to LGBTQ people. I found myself—someone who thinks a lot about creating an affirming classroom—questioning whether my own community fully accepted me.
I saw The Laramie Project for the first time as an undergraduate at Ole Miss. I was just coming out as gay to my friends and my community there. I was 13 years old when Matthew Shepard was murdered in October 1998. I had received the clear message—from the church, from my independent school, from my friends, and those around me—that being gay was not OK. And as I followed the Matthew Shepard story, I wondered if I, too, would end up beaten and bloody on a fence. Seeing the play years later, even as I had come to terms with my own identity, was still difficult. I didn’t know if I felt safe. I didn’t know if the idea of safety for a gay person was on the table.
In 2005, Judy Shepard came to speak at Ole Miss. In the days building up to her speech, we caught wind that Westboro Baptist Church was planning to protest her speech; I was thrilled to see an organized response: affirming voices and signs on campus that said to me that I should feel welcome. I wondered if the world had changed enough so that mothers of gay sons wouldn’t have to fear becoming the next Judy Shepard. But I remembered my first day on campus as a freshman a year earlier: A truck blazed by me and a guy yelled “fag!” In some ways, his reading of me wasn’t wrong, but the vitriol and threat with which he delivered his exclamation made me rethink a whole lot of things. But I had to figure out how to still be a student—to be sure, generous, and brave enough to learn.
In 2013, there was a second production of The Laramie Project at Ole Miss. And this production got more press. While the play was being performed, audience members—several of whom were football players—yelled derogatory slurs, deployed hate speech, and actively tried to derail the message. I was teaching at Indian Springs School (AL) at the time, and I was really disheartened. I think that educators in general are optimistic and hopeful—why else would we invest in the future? But hearing news of this sort of openly hostile and bigoted behavior at an educational institution (one that was important for me) reminded me of the work still to do with regard to inclusion and education.
In February, I received an email from Casey. He was giving a senior speech during an all-school meeting the next day. He asked me to read it over, and it began with a reflection on recent weeks. I knew that The Laramie Project cast had bonded and grown close throughout the experience of presenting what was an incredibly important moment in our school’s recent history.
Casey continued on and exhorted our community to love by saying, “We must strive for more than tolerance because anything less than love and acceptance for all kinds of people is deadly. Love your brothers. Love your sisters. Love your family. Love your community.” And then, he really got to the heart of the matter and told his truth: “I once thought the fact that I was gay was simply a personal matter. I’ve recently come to realize my choice to hide and not share who I really am inadvertently contributes to the environment and atmosphere of discrimination that makes it difficult to reveal who I am.”
As the chapel full of green blazers stood up and applauded Casey—even those who might not fully accept him—I felt that that moment was filled with some sort of queer magic, that the noise was both elegiac in mourning senseless losses like Matthew Shepard but also celebratory in supporting a beloved member of our community.
As we look at our school communities and recognize those who are openly queer, who may not feel safe to be out, or who may be waiting for their Casey-esque moment, let’s continue to think of what words, actions, and symbols include and celebrate. Let’s continue to see difference as a pathway to learning and loving better.