Our theme for the month of October is “This Day in History.”
This isn’t a sparkly post. But I thought it was only right that the title was from the mouth of Matthew Shepard, not me. I can’t believe I never even knew about him. Matthew Shepard that is.
Matthew Shepard was found tied to a fence post and beaten within inches of his life on October 7, 1998 outside of Laramie, Wyoming. Matthew was twenty-one years old. He was attending the University of Wyoming. He was barely over five-foot, straightforward, and politically active. And he was an openly gay man.
I never knew about him until I pulled a dusty copy of the play “The Laramie Project” off of the shelf in my ancient East Harlem classroom. There’s this thing about English teachers, where each time you move to a new classroom you inherit the most wild assortment of old and formerly used reading materials.
This play is a collection of interviews conducted in and around Laramie Wyoming in the wake of Matthew’s murder. It’s a remarkable play in that it’s truly a widespread collection of interviews. They interview parents and teachers, bartenders, and everyday residents of Laramie.
It begins with residents sharing about their experience in Laramie. Sgt. Hing describes that particular October 7th as “a beautiful day, absolutely gorgeous day, real clear and crisp and the sky was that blue that uh…you know, you’ll never be able to paint.” His description is jarring in the way that it contrasts with the horrific reality of a boy sitting on that clear blue horizon bleeding to death. But it’s meaningful in the way it highlights how the world keeps turning alongside the heart-wrenching reality of death.
The trial that ensues is something of a disaster. The two men accused of murder make excuses and cast blame upon Matthew. There are accusations of sexual advances from Matthew and fear. All of the explanations pale in the face of a boy left to die on a fence post.
Matthew’s dad comes up to speak as the jury deliberates the death sentence. As I read his speech on the 119 bus home to New Jersey one rainy afternoon, tears poured down my face.
He speaks of how his “first born son and hero” died on October 12, fifty days before he turned twenty-two. And he makes the statement, facing the boys who killed his son, “I am going to grant you life, as hard as it is for me to do so, because of Matthew.” All the emotions and grief and forgiveness and accountability tied up in that statement tore me to bits.
This event in history is a tragic culmination of the hatred that runs through the veins of Americans everywhere. We pump hatred of the “other” through our bodies so regularly that when it’s released, the consequences are terrifying.
The play doesn’t share many quotes from Matthew, since he had passed by the time it was written. But as the play comes to a close, a cab driver who knew Matthew shares his testimony. One night when they were in a limousine overlooking Laramie, Matthew said to him, “Laramie sparkles, doesn’t it?”
At the close of a devastating hate crime, it closes with his simple love for the place. The play doesn’t paint Laramie as evil, and I don’t think we should either. Hatred is not limited to places.
Today, October 7th, is the twenty-fifth anniversary of Matthew’s death. A quarter of a century has been robbed from him. A quarter of a century he could have enjoyed the sparkle of other cities, other people, other places.
Susannah currently lives in New Jersey and works as a 7th grade ELA teacher in East Harlem. When she is not teaching or writing, she can be found exploring independent bookstores, going backpacking, and trying to roller-skate on all the cool trails in the city. She is also recently experienced in the art of citrus skunk repellent (I know you’re impressed).