The following is a post by Beth Loffreda, author of Losing Matt Shepard: Life and Politics in the Aftermath of Anti-Gay Murder. You can also read Loffreda’s recent post: The Tenth Anniversary of the Death of Matt Shepard.
A few weeks ago I had dinner at the home of Cathy Connolly, a friend and a professor of Women’s Studies and an out lesbian who is featured in the play The Laramie Project. Four members of the Tectonic Theater Project, the creators of the play, were there too, and a friend of Cathy’s who is also on the university faculty, and a reporter from the New York Times. The reporter was following Tectonic, and Tectonic was here to ask what Laramie was like now, ten years after Matt Shepard’s murder. The reporter seemed deeply interested in his blackberry during dinner. But at one point, when Cathy mentioned the university’s Shepard Symposium on Social Justice (renamed for Matt a few years after the murder), he popped up his head and said (and this is the gist of it), “I’m glad you mentioned that. I have a change paragraph in my article, and that can be one of my three examples.”
I’ve been thinking about change paragraphs ever since. Not because the idea was surprising, but because it was an unusually frank and unveiled example of how simplistically, in our most popular media venues, we think and write about social change and how it happens. A change paragraph, and three examples. We all know that’s not a true way of capturing social change—including the Times reporter, who was a very sharp conversationalist about politics in general, not some rote thinker. But telling it differently is hard.
I’ve received probably half a dozen requests for interviews about the anniversary in the past month, and each person has asked me: how has Laramie changed? And I feel impatient and overwhelmed by the question while at the same time feeling its necessity and rightness. But how to answer it best, I still don’t know, how to capture and shape all the inchoate stuff, the beliefs and efforts that school up like fish and just as quickly disperse and then form up again, unpredictably in a different place and moment, and what that does or doesn’t lead to. I don’t know. Sex taps us more quickly and more intensely than any other issue right into the emotional life of politics, and tracking that elusive creature is very hard, especially when we’re only ten years out, ten years in which it would be equally fair to say that dramatic shifts in attitude have occurred and that many Americans still hate queer people with a steady and disgusted passion. That would be true of Laramie too; a while back I wrote that a town is not a culture, and I still think that, and think that tracking change even here, in a relatively small town, is hard to do.
Still, I’ll take a shot at a change paragraph. I think here in Laramie, many people who were adults when Matt died were rocked by his death, and thought hard about what beliefs they may themselves have harbored that were not entirely unlike the beliefs harbored by his killers. But rarely have those individual changes gathered themselves together and risen up into the kinds of changes that suit a change paragraph: we have no new legislation devoted to protecting gay people in the state, no legislation against bias crimes; we have a university that still hasn’t created domestic partner benefits despite years of effort, and is only just now beginning to consider a GLBT studies program.
On the other hand, what anti-gay sentiment still exists (and it does) hasn’t gathered itself and risen up into visible social change either: no new anti-gay legislation in the state, no efforts to close the campus Rainbow Resource Center, no backlash, no explosion of harassment against the queer people who, in the aftermath of Matt’s death, came out and laid claim to a public life in our town. This past Tuesday, the campus GLBT organization showed Laramie Inside Out, a documentary about Matt’s murder, and afterwards students talked about how easy life was in Laramie, and how hard; how they’d experienced far more anti-gay harassment in Houston and Chicago than here, but how they were still afraid to hold hands with their girlfriend or boyfriend; how one individual can make a difference, and how they stay closeted in jobs because there’s no anti-discrimination law to protect them. My feeling? It’s better here in Laramie than it was ten years ago, and all the conditions that led to Matt’s murder still exist. The new countervailing conditions—they’re here, but they’re fragile, tenuous, and they need our care.
The prairie were Matt’s killers abandoned him has changed too. Looking west from it, back towards Laramie, you see a changing town. Chain hotels and restaurants have moved in at a rapid rate, a Hilton, a Hampton Inn, a Perkins, a Chili’s. Farther west the Snowy Range rises up in its old alabaster thrust, but the pine beetles, thriving in our warming climate, have arrived in the forest and in four years, the scientists say, over 90 percent of the lodgepole pines will be killed, a brown forest, a dead one. You can see much here that’s harder to see from elsewhere. Plenty of people here try to forget Matt in all sorts of ways, and try to live outside of other streams of change too; but the prairie and the dead forest won’t give us much elsewhere to look.