In the Beginning
They were swimming in the scent of roses when hatred bloomed. The grandson led the way, trailed by family members with egg salad sandwiches and pasta salad that had been drenched in olive oil, leaving smears across the oversized bowls. Hand-in-hand the grandfather took his growing grandson to the edge of the park flourishing in bursting red tulips and “All-American” rose gardens at Gage Park. The humid Topeka heat left the boy, Josh, with a the kind of fever only a five-year-old can have for the welcoming green of the soft cooling blades of grass. He pressed his grandpa to move faster and faster, making his grandfather’s ten-gallon hat nearly topple from his head. As the dry hot pavement of the sidewalk began to end, the meadow’s promising magic became more and more real. The grandfather, now becoming more conscious of his cultivating years, attempted to keep the pace but finally submitted to his tired bones. The boy didn’t notice that he had left his grandfather behind as he took flight into the openness of the field.
The boy swept through the grass with a squeal. His cousins and siblings raced toward with their bikes and kites as his mother, Shirley, attends to her other 10 children. The massive lot swelled in the park as other families looked back for only a quick glance, for this was the family that everyone would talk about after church services and at the water cooler. If not for the colossal size of the bloodline, the family was always known for being the subject of controversy in Topeka. Grandpa Fred, a preacher and civil rights lawyer, was praised for bringing down Jim Crow laws in the city but his fiery brimstone sermons had left many in the town fearful of his Calvinist comments of a sweltering torturous eternity, leaving the entirety of the family as social exclusions.
You wanna go to hell? -Fine. I love it. I love the thoughts of you going to hell. I’ll be playing close attention to you brother, sister, in hell. As the eternal ages roll by I’ll be watching you suffer and all the nuances of your exquisite torment and pain and how you do. Eternity you know, is a long time. I’ll be watching you…I’ll be watching you.
But for today, the cerulean sky and fragrance of blossoms played as peacekeepers to any feuds or disagreements.
Josh, named after the leader of the Israelites after the death of Moses, was unaware that he had wandered from the family. Intoxicated by the warmth of the day, he meandered through the grass kicking up anthills and diving for grasshoppers. His trance was halted though,when his small eyes caught the last moment of a shadow brushing across a tree. He looked back for his grandfather.
Now realizing he was alone, he braced himself for the anger and consequence of his poor decision. But instead of being confronted by the scratchy low bellowing of his grandpa he was faced with another man, a stranger. The man said nothing as he looked at the lone boy, but the scene shouted danger.
The grandfather, now hurriedly searching for his young grandson, caught sight of the boy and froze. The boy, now inching closer and closer to the man in the shadowy trees and concealing bushes, made slow motions toward the uncertainty. Hatred took over the man and that small boy and all those near them.
The ordinary person doesn’t know what the fags do and what their agenda is.
The ordinary person thinks that their just simple hearted, sincere, friendly people that are being mistreated and bashed and who need the protection of the law so therefore they won’t be bashed.
After several claims of his young grandchildren being “accosted” by gay men in the shrubbery of Gage Park, including an accusation that young Timothy Phelps was literally chased by two men through the park, Fred Phelps took the issue to the local government.
Harry “Butch” Felker responded to Phelps and thanked him for his “colorful” letter describing the perversions that took place in the park, and said a program would be implemented to ensure that the impending danger the Phelps described would not continue to be a disturbance.
Because it is listed as a “cruisy” area in the Damron address book, a list of gay-friendly locations throughout the United States, Phelps criticized the park acting as a “safe house” to homosexual activity. After two years of waiting for action, stewing in hatred for the men who frequented the wooded area at the southwest corner of the park, Phelps disgusted silence became too much to stomach.
Watch your kids! Gays in the restrms
The posters littered the park. In colorful large fonts they stung the consciences of those who passed, leaving them in either fear or outrage. In an effort to wake up the local government to the promiscuity of Gage Park, in 1991 the Fred Phelps family, his 13 children, his grandchildren and great grandchildren took up arms to begin “The Great Gage Park Decency Drive” that cluttered every open space available at the public park.
The campaign aimed to clean out the “Sodomites rats nest” that infiltrated the family area. But as the local churches and God’s law became more and more involved in discussion of the campaign, the family of the Westboro Baptist Church made a bold move in bold letters.
“It’s catchy and it’s easy to put on a sign because all the words are small.” -Timothy Phelps
It is unknown what the boy saw before he lost consciousnesses. It could have been the glorious view of the starlit sky in the empty fields, the crisp chilled autumn air and the familiar musky smell of cattle. His mother, Judy, and father, Dennis, and the community of Laramie, Wyoming would like to believe in the picturesque scene as the boy’s last.
But he suffered. He likely endured freezing cold temperatures that pierced the open bleeding wounds of his crushed skull, made by the back of his attackers pistol, and waited in vain for his murderers to find mercy.
Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, was robbed and viciously beaten in the silence of the dark Wyoming night October 7, 1998. His defenseless limbs were found bound to a fence in the barren pasture making him appear as a bloody scarecrow to the cyclist who found him nearly 18 hours later.
Matthew’s small body drooped over the wood in an unnatural inhuman fashion. When the ambulance reached his powerless frame, Shepard’s body was covered in semi-dried blood, all but his face, which was washed by salt tears.
He suffered fractures to the back of the skull and right ear, more than ten lacerations to the face, neck and head as well as severe brain-stem damage. Shepard had been unreservedly abused and tortured by 21-year-olds Aaron McKinney and Russel Henderson.
For Henderson and McKinney, the robbery was effortless. They told their girlfriends that they planned to rob the young gay man after Shepard came on to them, to teach him a lesson. What kind of strength could a gay man, a sissy, a queer, a faggot have, they thought.
After allegedly “pretending to be gay,” the two offered Sheperd a ride home from the local Fireside bar.
Robert Debree: What did he look like?
Aaron McKinney: Mmm, like a queer. Such a queer dude.
Robert Debree: He looks like a queer?
Aaron McKinney: Yeah, like a fag, you know?
McKinney and Henderson later claimed the “gay panic” argument, explaining that because they were so uncomfortable with the notion of a man being attracted to them that were launched into a hyper-masculine heterosexual rage that led them to barbaric actions.
Aaron McKinney: Blacked out. My fist. My pistol. The butt of the gun. Wondering what happened to me. I had a few beers and, I don’t know. It’s like I could see what was going on, but I don’t know, it was like somebody else was doing it.
McKinney and Henderson then took Shepard out into the prairie. They dragged him through dust and screams to the fence where they tied him to the splintering wood. Shepard coughed out debris as his dry voice filled with fear shouted in grief. With each shuddering vibration from contact between closed fist and Shepards bones, they felt more of a man.
They began to laugh at Shepard’s defenselessness as his bright face and blonde hair became suffused with blood. He would learn. Grazing cattle looked on, perhaps noting their fate would not include such brutality.
Then the laughter halted. They had gone too far. But they continued beating him until Shepard was no longer identifiable. Shepard’s shrieks of unbearable pain were unlike any sound his murderers had ever heard in their short lifetimes, and it invoked a human horror in the assaulters that provoked a swift exit.
They took Shepard’s shoes and left the robbery-assault with a grand total of $20. As they dashed to leave, Shepard pleaded for his ailing life. The horrendous helplessness of Shepard caused Henderson to take the last look back at something that was suddenly not a man at all, but a mash of bloodied flesh hanging from a ranch fence.
The headlights of McKinney’s pickup created a glisten of the crimson blood flowing from Shepard’s veins until he was left in the bellowing darkness.
Dr. Cantway: Ah, you expect it, you expect this kind of injuries to come from a car going down a hill at eighty miles an hour. You expect to see gross injuries from something like that – this horrendous, terrible thing. Ah, but you don’t expect to see that from someone doing this to another person.
He was rushed to the hospital but never regained consciousness. The damage to his brain stem was too severe to maintain life. Shepard kept his shallow breaths through life support until he was pronounced death five days later on Oct. 12, 1998.
Matthew Shepard’s death commanded the attention of the nation. Though in the past, the policy received little attention, it became widely known and widely opposed, that the United States government could not define Shepard’s murder as a hate crime. Crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation were not grounds for prosecuting such a heinous action as one driven by homophobic hatred.
But bill after bill became a failure. Wyoming House of Representatives and former president Bill Clinton attempted to expand the definition to gay men and lesbian women in 1999, but legislators could not see the reasoning.
Though hatred was not acknowledged in Congressional debates, pure hatred was unmistakably in attendance at Shepard’s funeral.
The Westboro Baptist Church was ready and hating at the entrance to the young man’s memorial. And leading the brigade was father and grandfather Fred Phelps in a red, white and blue windbreaker topped with a ten-gallon hat.
With death brought the birth of public detestation. The picket of Matthew Shepard’s funeral by the church gained WBC international notoriety as a symbol of disdain and extremism. Their stinging pain singed the tempers of viewers, which was exactly what they had hoped for.
His parents, friends and family passed the neon signs in tears mourning for the love they had lost in Matthew.
“WBC picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, to inject a little truth and sanity into the irrational orgy of lies consuming this world. WBC does not support the murder of Matthew Shepard,” the WBC website said after the picket. “However, the truth about Matthew Shepard needs to be known. He lived a Satanic lifestyle. He got himself killed trolling for anonymous homosexual sex in a bar at midnight. Unless he repented in the final hours of his life, he is in hell.”
The church touts they have done more than 30,000 pickets in all 50 states. Despite uproar at the violation of the privacy of mourners, the pickets are protected by federal free speech laws.
The church, comprised mostly of members of the Phelps family, sent a wave through American society by providing a modern visual of the extremism that keeps civil rights at bay.
The Laramie Project first premiered at a Denver theatre in February of 2000, recounting hundreds of interviews to describe the torture and reaction to the animalistic nature of Matthew Shepard’s death.
Author Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project created the production that struck the spotlight on hate crime legislation in several states while spurring controversy about the 21-year-old’s open sexuality in an effort to heighten the discussion.
The true-life accounts of the witnesses of cruelty and violence in Laramie gained intricate details of the murder that the New York Times and Washington Post had neglected.
The play, however, was banned from performance in high schools throughout the nation. Teachers lost their tenured positions after handing a copy to their students and drama teachers became inhibited from taking on the controversial topic.
ACT III of the play even gave attention to WBC and provided reactions from the community.
Despite the needed attention from the media, the battle to gain protection for LGBT victims continued to fall short.
During a congressional debate in 2009, Representative Virginia Foxx went so far as to define Shepard’s murder as a simple robbery gone wrong and the idea of his death being an actual hate crime was a “hoax.”
“I also would like to point out that there was a bill — the hate crimes bill that’s called the Matthew Shepard bill is named after a very unfortunate incident that happened where a young man was killed, but we know that that young man was killed in the commitment of a robbery. It wasn’t because he was gay,” Foxx said. “The bill was named for him, hate crimes bill was named for him, but it’s really a hoax that that continues to be used as an excuse for passing these bills.”
Judy Shepard was in attendance.
Finally, on October 28, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act with Judy and Dennis Shepard as guests. More than 11 years had passed since Matthew’s death.
The Laramie Project
The cries of the suffering had deafened her in dreams. The boys, the young men too young to be simply men, who took their own lives to escape from the agony of the daily cruelty. Needless to say, she awoke with a mission.
The taunting of the tortured voices of—Tyler Clementi, 18, plunged into the Hudson River—Raymond Chase, 19, hung himself in the dorms—Asher Bron, 13, shot himself in the head—along with the innumerous lost voices impelled her actions to the stage. Two years prior, the time was not right to produce The Laramie Project, but with the recent burgeon of LGBT youth suicides, she became unafraid of the spotlight. The teens, at the ages of her students, were bullied by peers to the point of mortification and therefore took their youthful lives.
Trish Buttrill, drama teacher at Gunderson High School, said in years past she didn’t have a group of students who could handle such material. But this particular company had a certain spark that could incite a conversation of hatred, humanity and tolerance.
Though the students were set for production of “Wylie and The Harry Man,” a David and Goliath folktale for children about a boy outwitting a swamp monster, Buttrill decided inconvenient circumstances would not deter her dedication to end the silence in her community.
“I just woke up one morning and said this is our moment,” Buttrill said of her decision to produce the controversial play. “We dropped everything; I went and bought the script, made bunches of copies and we started the next day.”
Buttrill came to Gunderson after teaching at a magnet school for the arts. Teens who were taught to demi-plié and ron de jambe in diapers and were austerely trained from the moment they stepped into a high school hallway.
The teens of Gunderson on the other hand were raw, their emotions untouched by formal instruction. Techniques and passions were untamed and their energy contained a magnetism that fades with the endless lessons endured for the love of stage mothers.
The students of Gunderson High School had been waiting for the opportunity, the challenge, to take on a more serious production, and when Buttrill presented the opportunity to address the recent mushrooming of LGBT suicides by producing the Laramie Project, they unreservedly accepted.
“We grow some great kids here,” Buttrill smiled alluding to the lines repeated in Act II. Buttrill said a community that promoted open dialogue and maturity primed these students.
The adoration Buttrill has for her student’s spills out of any conversation. With each individual pupil, she doesn’t see a slot on the attendance list but a unique mind, a curious soul and an affectionate heart.
There is brightness in Buttrill’s smile that brings warmth and comfort to the most inhibited. She uses humor whenever possible to embrace happiness and to combat the most dreary of life’s moments. This reassurance was heavily utilized once the students received the lengthy three-act play. Each individual ensemble member would be cast in one to six characters.
“We thought no one would be interested, or it wasn’t the right time to do it,” said Dante Spears who was casted as Conrad Miller, Doc O’Conner and a juror determining the guilt of the two young men responsible for Matthew Shepard’s death.
The idea of producing the controversial play was nerve-wracking already, but the young players were faced with extensive monologues that left them concentrating on the memorization of words rather than the content.
“When they first started out they were wondering why they wanted to do this play,” Buttrill said. “I was discouraged many times, it took a long time for these kids to show that they could really feel it.”
Buttrill began to show videos of the living witnesses of the notorious hate crime, to express the reality of the hatred that possessed the night of October 7, 1998. Buttrill began to create a discussion of real hatred and real people.
Buttrill herself was raised with a generation of silence. A native of San Diego, she concealed her sexual orientation in a town where women lived as “spinsters” together for years unwilling to reveal their true identities.
“Women I’ve been friends with for years still don’t live openly,” she said. “I’ve even tried to speak with them about it, you know, you can be yourselves with me.”
Women who lived in fear of gossip and controversy ignored her efforts.
Because her teen years lied in the socially progressive decade of the women’s liberation and Stonewall riots that marked a milestone in LGBT liberation, Buttrill believes she benefitted from witnessing movements on the cusp of real change.
Still, when asked what she would have gained if she had the opportunity to perform The Laramie Project in her teen years she remembers the ignominy of her adolescence. She takes a moment of reflection and begins to laugh through tears.
“Oh, I would have saved myself a lot of pain and agony and sadness and shame,” she said.
As the students began to internalize the depth of the hatred that murdered Matthew, the many lines became superfluous and rehearsals began to gain more meaning. But it wasn’t until hatred scheduled a meeting with the students, did they realize they were part of a movement.
They were coming.
“WBC will picket The Laramie Project, fag propaganda play at Gunderson High School in San Jose, CA to remind this nation that God Hates Fags,” the website stated.
The hateful group that filled the pages with disdain in ACT III became much more existent in the minds of the teens when Buttrill received the message in her inbox.
“When these children die young … their blood will be on your hands,” replied Shirley Phelps-Roper, the daughter of WBC founder Fred Phelps. “When you awake in hell, they will greet you on the streets.”
Though the words of the Phelps family leaves most shocked. Buttrill naturally reacted with laughter.
“They just loved the letter they got back,” Buttrill said of her students. “Perhaps I should take them more seriously but I don’t take them seriously getting that note from her was hilarious to me.”
Buttrill admits that she never thought there would be an argument by producing The Laramie Project.
“I naively thought it wouldn’t be such a big deal because the content of The Laramie Project is so beautiful to me,” she said.
WBC recently issued a statement to all high school students of the United States in the name of God:
“The message is: every adult in your life has lied to you from birth. They have taught you that God is a liar and that His commandments are merely suggestions, if that. They told you two lies, to wit: It is okay to be gay & God loves everyone; ergo, live like the devil himself and you will still go to heaven when you die. They did that because they hate you.”
The community of Gunderson High School reacted in the same way as Buttrill: with laughter and music.
It was decided there was to be no emotional bias with hate.
When the nine justices of the United States Supreme Court decided March 2 that the Westboro Church and their public actions were fully protected under the first amendment, many in the nation was outraged.
The rights set down by the nations forefathers, freedom of speech and freedom of religion, shielded the church in their protests of soldiers who protected a “fag nation” in a landslide 8-1 vote.
That ruling had come in a case in which WBC had repeatedly picketed veteran funerals to express to the world that the suffering of war was punishment for the United States accepting homosexuals. In its ruling, the court also reversed a 2007 decision that stated the group had committed invasion of privacy by picketing the funeral of — Snyder.
Numerous LGBT youth were taking their lives in the fall of 2010 due to bullying and family condemnation. Students who lived in fear left this world to escape. Pulling the trigger, jumping, hanging — anything to forget.
Dr. Caitlin Ryan of the Family Acceptance Program at San Francisco State University found that LGBT youth who are rejected by their parents are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide. Young men and women who are rejected by family and peers are also much more likely to suffer from depression and drug abuse.
Studies promoted the establishment of Gay Straight Alliance clubs in order to create safe environments for students who became victimized by their peers.
The parents of Asher Brown, a 13-year-old boy who killed himself after enduring constant harassment from four boys at his middle school, had attempted to contact school administrators prior to his death, as did many parents and terrified young teens throughout the nation. The school did nothing, but after his death claimed they were unaware of Asher being the victim of bullying.
Several witnesses said Asher was harshly ridiculed for years to the point where no one could claim lack of knowledge.
“That’s absolutely inaccurate — it’s completely false,” Amy Truong, Asher’s mother, told reporters. “I did not hallucinate phone calls to counselors and assistant principals. We have no reason to make this up.”
Parents and LGBT activists soon recognized the escalating number of deaths deserved political action realizing that anti-bullying legislation was not extended to LGBT youth. It took the blood of youth to realize the law was not on their side.
Music poured from the pavement of New World Drive that night. The small street that led to Gunderson High School was crammed with bodies of young and old, protesting the hatred of WBC. Playful refrains and catchy bridges were necessary to ease the tension of the looming confrontation. Local police were forced to block the small road as Lady Gaga’s hit Born This Way was played again and again; an anthem for the counter protest that brought more than 500.
In the religion of the insecure
I must be myself, respect my youth
A different lover is not a sin
Believe capital H-I-M
The crowd, comprised mostly of students, was doused in rainbows and hearts, teens were dressed in leopard snuggies and sparkled headbands, neon tights and converse that led them to dance and twirl through the asphalt. The officers eyes darted more and more anxiously whenever a wave of excitement ran over the energized crowd.
The local news station dashed past the crowd with camera in hand. With each passing student, a high pitched scream joined with the crowd. I looked around for a moment to see if there was an oversized mascot provoking students to do “the wave” like homecoming games. The light-hearted fun resembled more of a pep rally than a battle between conservative religious values and LGBT rights.
The group fought hatred with humor. Nearly every hand carried a sign deriding the ferociousness of the notorious neon placard signs. While some decided to take on messages of acceptance and ignorance others simply scoffed. Signs touting massages of: My dog hates fags-I pledge allegiance to the fag of the United States of America-San Jose rejects hatred-God loves us all equally.
Veterans, waving enormous American flags, marched down New World Drive and silenced the scene. As they united in protest at the main street of Chenowyth, the crowd applauded and cheered for the men and women.
Curtain call was announced for those who were quick enough to buy tickets to the sold out performance. Because tickets had been sold out for weeks prior, most did not move from their place of protest. The mass of demonstrators moved to the edge of the main street where supporters honked and energy was maintained in a state of elation. Students from another high school gathered with angel wings representing the spirit of Matthew Shepard, an action mirroring the 1998 student supporters at a WBC protest. They sat at the curb in silence, waiting patiently for the ensuing war of words.
The license plate was barely visible through the dust it had collected through the miles. The deteriorated identifier read: Arkansas
The small campaign office had dubbed him Tattooed Knuckles Guy from the moment we set eyes on him. For of course, every stereotype related to one with permanent ink on one’s knuckles applied. He was crass and intimidating, with an agenda to see us gone, even with empty threats.
I was 18, my partner, Jamie, only 16. He was ill equipped for what was to take place.
I had signed up to be a volunteer with Equality for All after I left my potentially permanent position at Youth for Christ. In a mere six months I had gone from worshipping Him with hands in air and lips singing out the lyrics to MercyMe proclaiming the word of God to standing in front of a Fresno Target in a bold red shirt proclaiming the need for social justice:
I was considered a veteran after 6 weeks, training a newbie from the local Fresno High School to educate others, often in vain, of the oppression of the Limits on Marriage Initiative.
Do you believe in the freedom for gay and lesbian couples to marry?
The lucky were given thin blue ironing boards as tables for their efforts, but today we weren’t so lucky. We were the least lucky that day.
Don’t be. He can’t hurt you. The rule is you can’t speak to him. We’re representing an entire movement in this city, and people are waiting for us to say the wrong thing: especially him. He’s going to heckle us, but whatever you do – DO NOT SPEAK TO HIM.
Don’t worry. Don’t worry.
Tattooed Knuckles guy set up his table across from us with a scowl. He was a paid signature gatherer exploited by his lack of income from outside the state and had come to do anything to sell legislation by the signature.
Excuse me ma’am are you a registered voter? Are you a registered voter? Are you a registered voter?
My partner hesitantly followed me as we took our places directly in front of Tattooed Knuckles Guy. I had my tape measurer handy knowing I had to be at least three feet in front of his table. But three feet would all I would be given. Our strategy was distraction, and it worked well. With a big wave and the most American smile we could shine we began the process of “deflection.”
He locked eyes with a woman leading her red cart out of the air-conditioned department store and into the penetrating dry heat that sizzles the earth of the Central Valley each summer.
Excuse me ma’am are you a registered—
HAVE A GREAT DAY!
The tactic was simple: to interrupt the sales pitch with a sunny greeting. The woman stood in confusion as she hurriedly left the awkward situation.
You know, I’ve been readin’ up on my first amendment rights.
He said with a deep accent that made me envision a cartoon. His consonants harsh and spiteful were somehow eased with his elongated vowels.
I know ya’ll can hear me. I know. I know you can. Why don’t you just get the fuck out of here?
He was hushed as to not make a scene of his vulgarities.
No one’s listenin’ to you. What are you even doin’ here you dumb fuckin’ kids? Get home.
I was angry, but I understood. The campaign had illustrated us as an enemy; intent on taking money from the hard work of the lower class men and women they employed to see cents instead of reason. I imagined someone walking into my workplace and stealing my proof of work ethic.
We stood in silence.
Excuse me are you regi-
HAVE A NICE DAY!
His anger grew but felt some release as the manager of the Target placed a massive post and sign in front of my face. The manager set it on the tips of my toes at first attempt but settled to lace it a few centimeters off.
He gave a wink of solidarity at Tattooed Knuckles Guy before dialing the Fresno Police Department to arrest the youth that had harassed his customers for weeks now. I attempt to tell the manager, in the most mature tone of voice of an 18-year-old young woman, that the soliciting he speaks of also applies to the paid signature gatherers and if they stay we stay. This was a mantra I had developed through the weeks. He shrugged at me with a smile.
I quickly call the lawyer assigned to our local chapter as to save myself from handcuffs again.
In the chaos, I had forgotten my young partner.
HAVE A NICE DAY! HAVE A NICE DAY! HAVE A NICE DAY!
But his words were disrupted with rage, not by those affected, but by a Target shopper. With camera in hand he snapped picture after picture of my partner and I. Exclaiming he was sick of our obscenity he was sending the photos to the FPD, so our vile immorality would desist.
Sodom and Gomorrah paid for their sins and so will you!
I quickly turned my back to him as my partner’s tears began to flow in an attempt to shield him from the man’s frenzy.
In a fury of God and the love of Christ, he translated his anger to his hands as he struck the small of my back. I hit stonewall. Above the concrete ringing in my ears I could hear only one voice.
Excuse me ma’am are you a registered voter? Are you a registered voter? Are you a registered voter?
A dozen young cast members, clad in jean and flannel, began various attempts at southern dialects. The first performance of the Laramie Project had attracted a large crowd to Gunderson High School. Though their nerves were about them, the true tension dwelled in the seats. Mothers scratched at their cuticles when their daughters used the umpteenth swear word of the night, and fathers uncrossed and crossed their legs as their sons took the stage to proclaim their characters’ perspective of the “homosexual lifestyle.” Little brothers and sisters were left at home. For such young ages, the parents decided, the subject matter was considered inappropriate. Two teenage girls text friends, their faces light up in the bright blue of their iPhones. As the character of Dennis Shepard, the father of Matthew, takes the stage to address the murderers of his son, the girls quietly giggle about the most recent viral youtube video.
Buttrill watched her students begin their scenes but noticed small differences.
The WBC, notorious for not keeping up with their lengthy picket schedule, had made an empty threat to the children. But despite the church’s absences, the chilling notion of such hatred and Matthew’s memory combined to spark a passionate sentiment.
The doctor’s tears were streaming when she spoke of McKinney in the next room. Ismahan Chire, casted as a young Muslim feminist, lost herself in her monologue. Only Buttrill and other cast mates realized the anguish she felt as she spoke of the responsibility of society for Matthew’s death.
The bows had been initially staged without youthful tears.
The voice of Youth
7:30 a.m. two queers and a Catholic priest
The words incited tension in her muscle each time she uttered.
She hushed the word “queer” for some time before she could build the confidence that her father would not hear her.
He would pass by her door in the morning; her eyes would dart around the room to secure that her script of The Laramie Project was not visible.
Priyanka Rao had emigrated from India where she knew the gay community as an entirely different caste of human.
“I came from a place where I thought is a gay person a whole person? “ she said.
Her father still has no idea his daughter was in a play-let alone cast as a lesbian.
“The thing that made me nervous was more, like, who to tell that I was going to be in this play. Could I tell my grandma?” said company member Beth Reyes. “There were certain people who would question ….. Can I tell those people or those people?”
Theresa Voss, a Roman Catholic, invited her priest and conservative family with a fear that her parish may criticize her for her role in the show.
Gabby Lorenzo hesitated telling her father.
“The play wasn’t difficult,” she said. “The fear was telling my dad because my dad is generally conservative.”
Though Gabby’s father had a positive reaction to the message of the production, others were not so lucky.
“Some of the kids’ parents never saw the play and it breaks my heart,” Buttrill said.
“My parents don’t talk about it; they completely avoid the subject,” said Alexandra Nijmeh who played a narrator.
At 73, her Jordanian father would hear nothing of the subject. Her mother, born in Jerusalem, would often tell Shaela she was not permitted to be friends with young gay and lesbian students.
The play had gained the name “gay play” by peers throughout the high school. As it was meant to be an insult, students would respond with patience.
Patty Boyle endured the constant questioning of his sexuality from peers without being bothered. The bright haired young man, wears his polo collar slightly upturned when he explains that hatred and contempt have become all too easy.
“I think hate is a very strong word and hate is used very lightly,” he said. “If we keep talking about how we hate one another, it’s not going to lead anywhere except down.”
Patty played Aaron McKinney, one of the young men who murdered Matthew Shepard. While watching her child on stage, his mother said that was the very last time she wanted to see her son in an orange jumpsuit.
“Patty was actually lighter than a lot of us backstage because some of us would have to question do I agree with my character?” Alexandra said. “Because a lot of us were so close to what we were saying. I wasn’t sure if this really what I believed.”
Patty said he stood differently, furrowed his brows, puffed his chest out when playing McKinney. A hyper-masculine true-life character who showed little remorse for his heinous crime, some of the ensemble resented McKinney while others took a more sympathetic perspective.
“I didn’t feel sorry for either of them. He had the ability to go back and help him. Someone who feels anything would have not done that,” said Evan Rose, a young actor who played Matt Galloway. “People distance themselves – I think that people who try to be over masculine they have an insecurity within themselves about they’re own masculinity and they’re trying to prove that they’re not homosexual to themselves.”
Though all agreed McKinney’s actions were gruesome, many questioned the origin of the hatred.
“I don’t know if I feel sorry, it’s more remorse.,” said Beth Reyes, Gay Straight Alliance president at Gunderson and member of the cast. “I think it speaks for their society. I think had Russel Henderson and Aaron McKinney grown up in a more accepting place and instead of people saying ‘oh it’s a horrible thing to be gay’ they wouldn’t have taken it to the extreme.”
Students remembered scenes of small children from Westboro Baptist Church picketing for hate and became overwhelmed.
“These beautiful little kids and you see their parents they’re feeding them all this hatred,” Theresa said. “You want to blame them as adults but they were really just kids.”
The children are not to blame, the cast decided, but generations and generations of homophobia that has filtered down into the status quo.
“You can only teach your kids what you know, there’s nothing you can, do you can’t go all the way back in history,” Gabby said.
But this generation could be a beckoning light, the cast said. With openness and dialogue, such as The Laramie Project, lessons of hate can be reversed.
“Doing this show made me think I have my own power and I don’t really need them to support me in what I think,” Shaela said.
Such courage and transformation did not develop dryly. Before shows the cast and director would often become “squishy”, the term the cast used for being emotional to tears. Buttrill remembers many tears of pride and mourning.
At one point of high frustration, with the upcoming opening night, schedules and the doubts of society, Buttrill was left in tears. In a moment of vulnerability, she dipped away from the cast as to not inhibit the casts energy. But she could not hide. She was embraced by the entirety of the cast surrounding her in the love that she had created in them for themselves and each other. They then cried, squishly, tears of humanity and joy.
“I couldn’t have been prouder, I’m going to get all teary about it,” she said through watery eyes. “It was a big deal, it was a big deal. I just love them. They’re just remarkable.”