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October 10, 2006

Matthew Shepard's Death and the Laramie Project

The General started it all - with his letter to the Superintendent of the Yakima School District about canceling A. C. Davis High's production of The Laramie Project. Here's what the General said (for those of you not familiar with Jesus' General website, it's satire of the best kind so translate what he's saying with that in mind):

Godless promoters of tolerance will certainly point out that there is nothing in the script that anyone would find offensive, but that is a lie. The play is a brutal indictment of one of our most effective tools for enforcing cultural conformity--the use of violence against those who would corrupt our culture by acting on their in-born attraction to those of their own gender. The Laramie Project demeans our long tradition of encouraging homophobia. It flings mud upon the Jackboots of Righteousness we've shined so lovingly for generations. What could be more offensive than that?

As an aside, the General, a nationally recognized blogger who lives east of the Cascades, went on to "rant" about the need to take down a statue of the most infamous student to attend that school, Justice William O. Douglas Jr.

He says:

Its presence mocks every value in which we believe. To stand before it is to stand before some demonic apparition whose long-ago-uttered words continue to reverberate off the courtyard's walls. Indeed, Douglas seems to speak through his bronzed likeness, reminding us:

Literature should not be suppressed merely because it offends the moral code of the censor.


Free speech is not to be regulated like diseased cattle and impure butter. The audience that hissed yesterday may applaud today, even for the same performance.

Then Goldy stepped in to discuss the cancellation of the play and the politics behind it, arguing with a blog poster over at (un)Sound Politics, Matt Rosenberg, who apparently suggested that 1) the play wasn't true to an ABC 20/20 segment on the death of Matthew Shepard and 2) that it wasn't the place of the schools to teach tolerance.   Goldy tears into him as you might imagine:

And whatever the truth about Shepard’s murder, the undisputed fact is that hate crimes do occur, and that in America – like all over the world – people are indeed discriminated against, ostracized, brutalized, even killed because of their race, their religion, their politics and their sexual orientation. Thus in its heart, The Laramie Project would be a truthful play, even if it were a total work of fiction. If you don’t understand that, then you don’t understand art.

Dave Neiwert, over at Orcinus, another nationally known local treasure, then steps in to remind us that he dissected the 20/20 segment on Shepard's death in December of 2004, shortly after it was aired. Neiwert is a national expert on hate crimes and he wrote  a book on Shepard's death,  "Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, a Trial, and Hate Crime in America",  He challenged both the thesis and the basic accuracy of the ABC segment. 

Indeed, the entire thrust of ABC's "revelations" -- that it was all a drug binge, not a hate crime -- reveals how little the reporters who worked on this understand not just bias crimes but criminal law generally. One factor, such as drug use, does not cancel out another, such as a bias motive. They often in fact appear together and work in conjunction.

There's an even more significant problem with the 20/20 report, however: It is signficantly factually flawed.

Dave goes on to lay out the details of how ABC got it wrong and then to discuss the negative power of hate crimes and the reasons that law need to be very stringent:

A bias crime thus attacks the victim not only physically but at the very core of his identity. It is an attack from which there is no escape. It is one thing to avoid the park at night because it is not safe. It is quite another to avoid certain neighborhoods because of one's race. This heightened sense of vulnerability caused by bias crimes is beyond that normally found in crime victims. Bias-crime victims have been compared to rape victims in that the physical harm associated with the crime, however great, is less significant than the powerful accompanying sense of violation. The victims of bias crimes thus tend to experience psychological symptoms such as depression or withdrawal, as well as anxiety, feelings of helplessness, and a profound sense of isolation.

Why do I focus on this issue again, other than to give three of our local bloggers a big shout out (which they hardly need)?  Well 1) I saw The Laramie Project years ago in San Francisco when it first came out and it is an incredibly moving play.  2) the penalties for hate crimes are being watered down and 3) once this election is over, those of us who are fighting so hard to get Democrats elected are going to have to turn our attention to raising and clarifying our issues.  There will be a great drum-beat of right-wing talking points to try to undercut the impact of the election of Democratic majorities in one or both Houses of Congress.  They will go after us with everything they have.  That's what they did in 1993 after Clinton was elected and it contributed to the Clinton administration's difficulties greatly.  They didn't expect it and didn't plan for it.  This time, we know it will happen and need to resist it mightily.

A Summary of What Happened to Matthew Sheppard

For those of you who haven't heard of or want a refresher on the what actually occurred, here is a summary that Dave Neiwert wrote in that same article referenced above, based on his own book:

Shepard, a twenty-two-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was openly gay, and was somewhat flamboyant about it, at least by Laramie standards. Hanging out in a local bar the night of October 6, he managed at least to attract the attention of two local rednecks, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who were looking for someone to rob, and picked Shepard because he was gay. They told Shepard they too were gay and offered to give him a ride home in their pickup truck, and Shepard accepted.

McKinney later gave multiple, conflicting accounts of what happened that night. He told a police detective that Shepard had not made any advances toward him at the bar, but that Shepard put his hand on McKinney's leg inside the pickup, at which point McKinney told him: "Guess what? We're not gay. You're gonna get jacked." From prison, he wrote to a friend that he started beating Shepard in the car because of an even more naked advance:

"When we got out to where he was living, I got ready to draw down on his ass, and all of the sudden he said he was gay and wanted a piece of me. While he was 'comming out of the closet' he grabbed my nuts and licked my ear!! Being a verry drunk homofobic [sic] I flipped out and began to pistol whip the fag with my gun, ready at hand."

Later, at trial, McKinney attempted to claim that Shepard had in fact made an advance on him at the bar, whispering a sexual proposition into his ear and then licking his lips suggestively. The humiliation he felt at the advance, he claimed, spurred a violent rage that made him want to beat Shepard. (The judge, however, struck down this testimony.)

Whatever the sequence of events and motivations, the three men wound up southeast of town in a remote area near the Sherman Hills subdivision. McKinney and Henderson robbed Shepard and tied him up with rope. As Shepard begged for his life, McKinney proceeded to beat him severely, ultimately pulling out a gun and pistol-whipping him over the head. They left him to die, in the freezing night air, leaned up against a wooden rail fence.

It was in that pose that two mountain bikers found him, some twelve hours later, at first thinking he was a "scarecrow" someone had propped up on the fence. (Their original description created a popular image of Shepard strung up on the fence like a crucified martyr, though in fact his arms were tied behind him and he was seated on the ground.) Though he probably should have either bled to death or succumbed to hypothermia, he was barely alive. He lingered for another five days at the Laramie hospital before he finally died of his injuries.

Posted by Lynn Allen on October 10, 2006 at 01:15 PM in Media, National and International Politics | Permalink


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