Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten and later died exactly 15 years ago this past Saturday, Oct. 12. His story sparked a media frenzy in 1998 and made the issue of hate crimes against LGBTQ people a topic of national conversation. Soon thereafter, the Tectonic Theater Project would make a play called The Laramie Project, based on the events surrounding his death, focusing on the community of Laramie, Wyo., the impact of his murder and the many people involved in the case and affected by it. It's a play that I just had the opportunity to not only perform in at my school, the University of Mississippi, but see performed by a cast from the iconic Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., this past Friday. But because of the recent government shutdown, it was performed in a nearby church rather than at Ford's Theatre itself. There were signs at the entrance announcing that the shutdown could not keep Ford's Theatre from bringing this play and its message to the public. The performance was followed by a vigil honoring National Coming Out Day as well as the anniversary of Matthew's death. Matthew's father, Dennis Shepard, was there, seeing the play for the first time and speaking afterwards, spreading a message of truth and hope. The play, which ends with the speech that Dennis read at the trial of Aaron McKinney, Matthew's murderer, moved the audience to tears, which were that much more real because Dennis was present in the audience. At the vigil he spoke about the progress that he's seen over the 15 years that he's been working to erase hate, and about the need to continue to speak up and do the work that's still necessary to make the world a better place for the LGBTQ community.
On Tuesday, Oct. 1, at the University of Mississippi, my cast and I were reminded exactly why this show needs to be performed. My castmates and I were subjected to derisive laughter from the audience, and hurtful comments were made about our sexual orientation, weight, race, religion, and even gender. That night we were reminded of the continued existence of fear-based ignorance and hate. Despite federal hate crime and bullying legislation and the recent Supreme Court rulings advancing marriage equality, we still have work to do.
Sitting as an audience member on Friday night, I got to experience the show from a different angle. I sat next to Dennis Shepard and experienced the show from the audience's perspective. Experiencing this with Dennis was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and meeting him was such a blessing. He has so much strength and pride and showed so much caring and compassion for me while I was there. The show itself was truly breathtaking. The work of the ensemble cast and the direction of Matthew Gardiner were beautiful. I shed many tears as I watched this heart-wrenching story that I am all too familiar with unfold.
Afterwards, at the vigil, Dennis Shepard spoke openly and candidly about his experience of watching the play for the first time. He had never allowed himself to see it before, for fear of getting angry. He said that anger over Matthew's death will always live in him, but that he is excited and happy that our society has begun to move toward equality for all people. I then stood up to speak. I spoke of the incident at Ole Miss and the inspiration that Matthew's legacy gives us all. It is important that we continue to spread Matthew's message of hope and equality. The night then closed with a moment of silence, blowing out of the candles, and listening to the amazing Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, D.C., sing. It was so lovely.
This experience was truly breathtaking, beautiful, and also heartbreaking. Fifteen years ago Matthew experienced a horrible beating and death. Though he left this world prematurely, his message is still carried on by me and others like me. We will continue to stand up for equality and celebrate every victory. And we will fight back when hate rears its ugly head. We will be equal. Matthew's legacy will continue to inspire all of us to speak up for equality.
See photos of the performance and vigil in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Oct. 11: