Chris Sciabarra
Chris Sciabarra

The Laramie Project: Fighting Gay Panic and The Culture of Hate

I recently saw a theater production called The Laramie Project. The play has toured the United States, and is currently running off-Broadway in New York City. It is produced by the Tectonic Theater Project. Eight men and women portray about thirty or so characters in a two-and-a-half hour drama on a minimalist stage. The characters are distillations of about 200 people whom the theater company interviewed over a one-year period in Laramie, Wyoming. It centers on the small town's reaction to the ghastly 1998 murder of a young gay student named Matthew Shepard. Shepard's murder has become a rallying cry of sorts by those who embrace so-called "hate crimes" legislation.

Matthew was not quite 22 when he died. He was a conscientious and intelligent young man, with a promising future. He'd met two men in a local straight bar, and got into their truck, ostensibly to be driven home. It seems as if the men were out to rob him, but acted as if they were gay in order to lure him out of the bar. One of the men became angry when Matthew allegedly put his hand on the man's thigh. The man suddenly suffered what he later called a "gay panic" attack - and started punching Matthew as he sat next to him inside the truck. The men eventually pulled over on the road, dragged Matthew out of the truck, tied him to a fence, and brutally beat him. They left him to die on a cold October night.

Sixteen hours later, a young man on a bicycle came upon Matthew. At first, he thought the lifeless figure was a scarecrow. But when he saw that the scarecrow was breathing, he called for help. The emergency medical team had difficulty cutting the tightly wound rope from Matthew's wrists, and could hardly see the young man's face. In fact, the only discernible clear spots of skin on his face were below his eyes - where tears had streaked through the dried clots of blood that had clogged his pores. Some days later, Matthew would die with his parents by his bedside in a local hospital.

The play focuses on the townspeople - how they confront and seek to vanquish their own prejudices and fears. We certainly get a glimpse of the hatred - in the words of the Reverend Fred Phelps, who showed up at Matthew's funeral with his fundamentalist Christian cohorts, praising a God who "hates fags," and who had now condemned Matthew to an eternity in hell. It cannot be denied that this kind of rhetoric creates a culture of intolerance, and that the killing of a young gay man is only the material expression of a deeply spiritual disease.

The left-wing responses to the theocratic right-wing have been typically statist. The play itself minimizes the politics. We get one or two minor statements from some characters about how Wyoming has still not seen fit to "outlaw" hate crimes. I could not help but wonder how such legislation (which would criminalize further the politically incorrect motivations of the perpetrators) would have saved this young man's life. It would simply be another attempt to affect social mores by writ. Legally, we would accomplish a lot more by fully recognizing the individual rights of every victim of every crime.

It is not as if the motivations of the killers are of no consequence, however. Indeed, as Objectivists, we can genuinely appreciate the power of ideas in shaping - or in rationalizing - human behavior. It is because ideas must be accepted volitionally that the battle is primarily intellectual and cultural. Nothing less than a philosophy of individualism will do. It is not enough to adopt a social attitude of "Don't ask, Don't tell." Such a policy, as practiced by the U.S. military, enshrines mutual blindness: We won't ask you what you do in your bedrooms, as long as you promise not to tell us. We'll simply cover our eyes and our ears, as long as you cover your mouths. Clinton, of course, has universalized this hypocrisy as the credo of his political legacy.

For a larger culture that practices social oppression of difference, however, more needs to be said - and bona fide individualists should be saying more - about our rights as individuals to pursue our own vision of happiness without violent interference from others.

The frightening thing is that we live in a culture that allows mental health professionals and lawyers to use the doctrine of "gay panic" as a rationale for murder. The doctrine seeks to excuse those who are most insecure about their own sexual orientation as long as they claim to feel threatened by unwanted advances from members of their own sex.

The killers of Matthew Shepard had to make choices every step of the way: after the first punch was thrown, they chose to stop the truck. They chose to drag the limp body of their victim to a fence. They chose to tie him up. They chose to beat him until he was nearly dead. They chose to leave him alone, twisted and crucified on that fence. And they chose not to tell anyone of Matthew's whereabouts. Every punch, every kick, every action was the result of some decision. And even if every decision was an automatized consequence of a hateful premise, nothing relieves the killers of their moral and legal culpability. They were duly sentenced, and will probably never get out of prison.

"The Laramie Project" tells this story in a way that might appear as a journalistic derivative, since it is gleaned from actual interviews and court testimony. But the talented actors project a core of human values that recognizes our uniqueness even as it embraces our common humanity. Ironically, we never see Matthew in this play - not on stage or in video clips. And yet, sitting in the audience, I could not help but feel his presence. This moving drama does much to put a human face on the victim, and on all those affected by his murder - including those who committed it.

Ultimately, it asks us to check our premises.


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