The following post is by Beth Loffreda, author of Losing Matt Shepard: Life and Politics in the Aftermath of Anti-Gay Murder. Loffreda is also director of the MFA Program and associate professor of English at the University of Wyoming.
Last Saturday morning here in Laramie, the University of Wyoming held a ceremony dedicating a memorial bench in the name of Matthew Shepard.
Ten years ago during the autumn when Matt died, and then the next autumn, during the trials of his killers, I spent a lot of time walking around Laramie, to vigils, protests, court proceedings, press conferences. I walked and tried to look, with the gleaming high-altitude light pouring down all around me and what I’d gone to see. It was like that on Saturday again, chilly as I walked the four blocks from my house to the ceremony and then, in that sudden way that happens here as if a switch has been flipped, all at once blazingly warm.
Matt’s parents spoke at the dedication, as did our president Tom Buchanan. The bench is tucked into the corner of a small elevated plaza outside our Arts and Sciences building. The podium stood beside it. To the right was a table holding brochures and bracelets from the Matthew Shepard Foundation. To the left a few TV cameramen and photographers stood and swiveled between the speakers and the small crowd who’d attended. I saw many administrators, a handful of faculty members, a handful of staff, a few reporters. The governor and his wife attended. At least a dozen student members of Spectrum, the glbt campus group, were there, and a few other gay students I know. Two of my MFA students, Christina and Beth, came too, and a friend of Christina’s, Matt Streib, a religion reporter on a bike tour of the country. My friend Joyce was there; she teaches introduction to gay and lesbian literature. A few young people had driven up from Greeley, Colorado. A table of food and juice and coffee was laid out beyond the plaza. Four or five cops stood out on the perimeter with what turned out to be nothing to do.
Judy Shepard pulled the microphone down to her tiny height and spoke with informality and ease about Matt, about the work of the Shepard Foundation, about how she felt things have improved for gays and lesbians since Matt’s death but that Wyoming still has a ways to go. Dennis Shepard spoke too, and it was the hardest part of the morning. His nose was scratched and bruised; he said he’d broken it doing work around the house. He said that he and Matt had had a competition when he was alive; each had broken his nose twice, one pulling ahead of the other and then the other tying it back up. After telling us this, he paused for a long time. He said that when Matt was in the hospital, unconscious, soon to die from the brutal beating he’d sustained, one of his injuries was a broken nose—Matt’s third, one more than Dennis. This fresh injury restored the tie. There was something so devastating in it, the nature of his connection to Matt, a connection through visceral pain and broken bones and their infliction. He stood there, asking us to remember, among other things, the reality of Matt’s body, Matt’s pain; Matt, who would have been 32 this year.
Zackie, who I chronicled in my book eight years ago under a pseudonym, was also there, and angry. Zackie’s a lesbian on the university staff; her partner made tenure shortly after the book came out and, just recently, full professor. Zackie has a long history as an activist; several years ago during a meeting with a university administrator who appeared to be waffling on domestic partner benefits, she cheerfully reminisced about her days in the Bay Area training to use an M16. She’s worked on the partner benefits issue for what, this fall, feels like too long; so have Cathy Connolly, a professor of Women’s Studies, and Jerry Parkinson, the dean of the law school, and me. Despite how long it feels, we still don’t have partner benefits on campus. Zackie felt, even as the morning was dedicated to remembering Matt, that a certain forgetfulness was in the air, that the university’s posture seemed defensive, that the morning was not a direct and forthright embrace of the queer members of our campus but instead an opportunity to distance the university and Laramie from the accusations of prejudice that still dog us. As I stood beside her she sang a few lines from a Lovin’ Spoonful song—what a day for a daydreaming boy. She meant Matt.
There was a range of moods—how couldn’t there be. The other queer people I spoke to expressed everything from deep sadness to frustration to an amused tolerance of the shortcomings of straight people. B., a delightful, punky young woman in Spectrum, shrugged off the alienation of it all and took my picture; a few of her comrades told me they felt Spectrum had been invited only at the last minute after news of the ceremony had leaked. I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s how they felt.
I like our president very much; there’s no doubt his task was difficult that morning. But it was there to be witnessed, the gap between the university’s official self-presentation and the troubled mood of so many of the gay and lesbian people in attendance. Still, here’s one thing he said that I appreciated: “We live every day at UW committed to the idea that we treat all with dignity and respect. A memorial bench can serve as a reminder of our commitment, but we must continue to work hard to make it a reality.” I’d like that to be true. Many people over the years—mostly, in my experience, people from outside Laramie—have asked for a memorial to Matt, and while I’ve understood that wish, I’ve always felt that the best way for the university to remember Matt is to make the campus truly just, truly open, and explicitly, institutionally so; to make it a place where we resist the culture of quiet in Wyoming that continues to muffle the audibility of gay residents. The president reminded us that the university had since Matt’s death created the Shepard Symposium on Social Justice, an annual conference named for Matt; the Rainbow Resource Center; the Social Justice Research Center. These are good things, and they are not nearly enough.
Still. A few days before the ceremony, I got an email from someone I’ll call C., a young woman who identified herself as a “bisexual Mormon,” who lives in a tiny town, barely a town at all really, near the Colorado border. She’s writing a paper for her high school government class arguing for the legalization of gay marriage; another student is arguing against it, on the basis that “it’s creepy.” C. wanted to know if she was the close-minded one. The culture of quiet can be crazy-making; still, she’s writing that paper, in that town.
And still. Before the ceremony began, I saw G., a gay student here—I met him when he took my queer theory class last year. He’s enormously smart, thrumming with nervous energy, slim and vivid. We talked and he told me about someone he’s met, someone he likes; he described him to me although I already know him, another vivid one who waits tables at a downtown restaurant. G. was lit up with the happiness of it, of possibilities unfolding. I’m looking for signs, I know, for whatever evidence I can find that will cut back against what feels so bad this fall, the weight of all we haven’t yet done here, how we still estrange, still forget. I know I’m looking for signs, but still I felt grateful to hear him Saturday morning. In the end, it felt like what I’ve wanted all along: that he might have the same shot at happiness as the rest of us, unburdened by shame and threat. There he was, standing in the shadow of Matt’s death, falling in love, all that light pouring down around him.