Monday, October 5, 2009

Matthew Shepard's Horrific Death Remembered in the Berkshires

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Matthew Shepard would be 32 years old had he survived the night he was tortured and left to die on a fence in Laramie, Wyoming. His killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were ignorant louts, from broken homes, with twisted and hateful views not only towards homosexuals, but the world in general. Hate sometimes knows no limits when you are under-educated, unloved by your parents and looking for someone to blame.

At the time he met his end, Matt was really into computers. Ten years ago there was no FaceBook or Twitter, just some chat rooms at AOL and elsewhere where searching for kindred spirits often took place, but then - as now - there was a lot of frustrating game playing too. Matt ran into pretense the night he died at the hands of Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney who offered him a friendly ride seeing the gay kid as a perfect target for both hate and profit, and then robbed, pistol whipped, tortured, tied him to a fence in a remote, rural area, and left him in the dark to die.

McKinney and Henderson also found out his address and intended to rob his home. Still tied to the fence, Shepard was discovered 18 hours later by Aaron Kreifels, who at first thought that Shepard was a scarecrow. At the time of discovery, Shepard was still alive, but in a coma.

Shepard suffered a fracture from the back of his head to the front of his right ear. He had severe brain stem damage, which affected his body's ability to regulate heart rate, body temperature and other vital signs. There were also about a dozen small lacerations around his head, face and neck. His injuries were deemed too severe for doctors to operate. Shepard never regained consciousness and remained on full life support. As he lay in intensive care, candlelight vigils were held by the people of Laramie. And in hundreds of cities and town beyond Wyoming. I remember the newscasts that night as vividly as I can recall the death of JFK or 9/11. Poiintless death is always seared into the memory.

This was not the first time young Matt received a gay bashing. About one out of five gay men experience a criminal level assault during their lives for being gay. A year prior to that fatal night Matt had been beaten pretty badly by a bartender who claimed he had made a pass at him. Matthew took care of his injuries, forgave the bartender and his buddies who had ganged up on the frail kid, and went on with his life.

Nevertheless, he continued his search for someone to love, to share his life with, whether for a few dates, or life. Instead he found death. In Wyoming, up until that point you never went to jail for beating some gay guy to a pulp. The gay panic defense is still used in courtrooms daily as a defense against assault and murder charges.

Just as there are no gay bars in the Berkshires, there was not a single gay bar in the entire state of Wyoming where Matthew could safely go to meet other gay men. Instead, there were those shadowy places I call AYOR bars - At Your Own Risk - which used to be quite common until gays came out of the closet following Stonewall.

Many of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters are still in their closets for one reason or another, perhaps fearful of harassment at work, or school, or even in the particular neighborhood where they live, or the church they attend. This weekend, Octotber 11, is when we celebrate National Coming Out Day, and let's hope a few more closet doors will swing wide open. It's not so bad in the sunlight.

Part of the reason to come out is to show the world we don't fit stereotypes, but are pretty normal folks. We also can let our political leaders know what is important to us, we are their constituents. How fortunate so many fought - and continue to fight - for equality and acceptance.

The Laramie Project is an important, uplifting and exciting part of the equation.

To hear the story of Matthew, and the response of the Laramie community to this horrific crime, you have to see and experience The Laramie Project: An Epilogue. The original play has been performed thousands of times and in every state. The Epilogue not only looks at Laramie and America ten years later, it also contains a segment on how we in the Berkshires are changing our attitudes towards the LGBT community. This new event is being presented by 120 theaters across the nation on the tenth anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death which was October 12, 1998.

Things are much better for gays and lesbians than they were just a decade ago, but life can still be very difficult for transexuals. We need to help people understand this, and support their needs as a united community. Sexual preference continues to include a rainbow of possibilities.

The task of becoming equal citizens is ongoing. There is a big difference between being gay in a coastal city and trying to live openly in a rural community elsewhere. Fred Phelps and his band of nutcases from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas continue to harass and picket under the God Hates Gays screed. His small band of modern day Klansmen continues to travel the country, currently hassling military families and dragging the American flag that gives them freedom of speech in the mud. Thank goodness he hasn't a clue as to how much he has helped get hate crime legislation passed, and helped straight Americans understand just how ugly the face of blind hate can be.

This Columbus Day weekend, here in the Berkshires, we have our first ever Out in the Berkshires event, and it is an attempt to come together as a community to see each other, and who our friends are. For the young set, there is a concert followed by a dance at the Elks Club on Saturday night, produced by Quite Queer 10/10. For lovers of choral music, there is the magnificent sound and high spirits of the Boston Gay Men's Chorus at St. Stephens on Saturday.

And for all of us, young and old, straight and gay, there is The Laramie Project at Barrington Stage Company on Monday, October 12 at 3 and 7 PM. Here's the latest on the impressive cast that is working on this show. It includes professional actors from Barrington Stage and members of our own community.

Jeremy Bobb from BSC's Sleuth,
Emily Taplin Boyd from BSC's A Streetcar Named Desire,
Kevin Carolan from BSC's A Streetcar Named Desire,
Thom Christopher from BSC's Trumbo and A Picasso,
Tandy Cronyn from BSC's Private Lives,

Mark H. Dold from BSC's Freud's Last Session,

Christopher Innvar from BSC's A Streetcar Named Desire,
Jeff Kent from BSC's A Streetcar Named Desire,
Seth Rogovoy from Berkshire Living Magazine,

Debra Jo Rupp "That 70's Show" & To Kill A Mockingbird,
Enrico Spada, Marketing & Web Manager, Shakespeare & Co,
Jerome Spratling from BSC's To Kill A Mockingbird,

Lisken van Pelt Dus, Poet in the Schools/Black Belt,

Ryan Weightman, Office of Cultural Development
Megan Whilden, Director,Office of Cultural Development
Peggy Pharr Wilson, BSC's To Kill A Mockingbird & Carousel

More about the Out in the Berkshires weekend appears in the articles just prior to this.

That you will be entertained in style is a given, and you may even meet some interesting new people. See you there!

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