University Of Mississippi's 'The Laramie Project' Production Interrupted By Students, Athletes Yelling Anti-Gay Slurs

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MATTHEW SHEPARD
Students sing at a vigil against violence at Prexy's Pasture on the University of Wyoming campus in Laramie, Wyo., Sunday night, Oct. 10, 1999. After the vigil, those in attendance walked to a nearby Peter, Paul and Mary concert with their candles. The weekend marked the one-year anniversary death of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, who was tied to a fence and beaten into a coma from which he died two days later. The trail for one of the suspects in Shepard's death, Aaron Mc | AP

"The Laramie Project" got a less-than-enthusiastic reception from student audiences at the University of Mississippi.

As the The Daily Mississippian reports, a group of students -- including an estimated 20 Ole Miss football players -- disrupted the university theater department's Oct. 1 performance of "Laramie," which is based on the 1998 murder of gay Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.

Director Rory Ledbetter said some members of the audience hurled anti-gay slurs like "fag" at cast members, and described the audience's reactions as "borderline hate speech."

Theater student Garrison Gibbons, who said he was the only openly gay member of the cast, noted, "To be ridiculed like that was something that really made me realize that some people at Ole Miss and in Mississippi still can’t accept me for who I am.”

Added Rachel Staton, another theater major: “That was by far the worst audience I’ve ever performed in front of ... If I can go support and respect the football team in their stadium, I feel like they should be able to support and respect me and my fellow cast members when we are doing a show.”

The school's athletic department has since issued a formal apology for the outburst, while Dean of Students Sparky Reardon said he was "extremely sorry to hear" of the incident, according to reports.

Written by Moisés Kaufman ("Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde," "33 Variations") in 2000, the play has continued to spark controversy when it is produced around the world. In July, the principal at an Iowa high school nixed the show from being performed by the school's drama club because he felt it was felt it was "too adult," though he noted it "does preach a great message," according to the Heartland Connection.

Ottumwa High School Principal Mark Hanson's decision was supported by Superintendent Davis Eidahl, who said he wanted "the focus of our Ottumwa High School productions to be for the entire family."

Meanwhile, a new book about the Shepard case is also making headlines. Released on Oct. 1, Stephen Jimenez's The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard concludes that Shepard and one of his attackers, Aaron McKinney, were both dealing and using methamphetamine and, in addition to being business rivals within that venture, had a sexual relationship.

Defending Shepard as having been the victim of "a brutal, anti-gay hate crime," a spokesperson for The Matthew Shepard Foundation told The Huffington Post: "Attempts now to rewrite the story of this hate crime appear to be based on untrustworthy sources, factual errors, rumors and innuendo rather than the actual evidence gathered by law enforcement and presented in a court of law."

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