Social Justice series explores bias and hate crimes with “The Laramie Project”

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(Host) At Saint Michael’s College, students want to do something about homophobia, hate crimes and social injustice.

So this fall, the school organized a series of events to confront the issue, beginning with a theater production of “The Laramie Project”.

The play tells the story of the people of Laramie, Wyoming, and the tragic death of Matthew Shepard in a hate crime nine years ago.

VPR’s Lynne McCrea was on campus for our story.

(Stage scene) "… I was looking around, and I noticed something… and I thought it was a scarecrow…"

(McCrea) An early scene in The Laramie Project, played by Rory Fitzgerald, recounts the day that Matthew Shepard was discovered. He had been badly beaten and tied to a fence and left for 18 hours in near freezing temperatures.

(Stage scene) "…So I got closer, and I noticed his hair -that was key to me noticing it was a human being- was his hair because I just thought it was a dummy…"

(Harrigan) "It’s a great challenge for the students, in terms of the style of the play…

(McCrea) Peter Harrigan is an Associate Professor of Theater at St. Michael’s College, and he’s directing the production of "The Laramie Project".

(Harrigan) "The emotionality is a great challenge for them, just in terms of being able to bring humanity to all the characters-both sympathetic and unsympathetic-because I hope we can present them all with humanity, not just the ones whose views we agree with."

(McCrea) To deepen the impact of the play, St. Michael’s invited Matthew Shepard’s mother, Judy, to speak. Shepard makes numerous appearances around the country every year. And whether mingling in a crowd or giving a speech, she says she tries to convey a simple message.

(Shepard) "I think the straight community is largely ignorant of what the gay community goes through on a daily basis. And the only way we can correct that ignorance is if members of the community and their friends and families tell their stories! Talk about what their lives are like. So that we know that our insurance salesman is, indeed gay, and still a tremendous individual. Or their teacher, pastor – whatever. There are gay people everywhere. I just wish the community would realize how important that role could be. And the other thing is, we’re all just people, just human beings. And the only thing that separates us is who we love. And at the end of the day, does it really matter? I don’t think so…"

(Clark) "My name is Kate Clark. An in the Laramie Project, I play Lucy Thompson, who is the grandmother of Russell Henderson, one of the perpetrators. And she only has one appearance, in court, where she reads a statement to the judge, and to Dennis and Judy Shepard. Which is very emotional…"

(Stage scene) "Our hearts ache for the pain and suffering that the Shepards have went through. We have prayed for your family since the very beginning. You have showed such mercy in allowing us to have this plea, and we are so grateful you are giving us all the opportunity to live… For the Russell we know and love, we humbly plead, Your Honor, to not take Russell completely out of our lives forever…."

(McCrea) The Laramie Project was created by a New York theater company, and it’s based on 2 years of research and hundreds of interviews with people in Laramie. The result is a documentary- style play that looks at Matthew Shepard’s final days, and what happened to the town after his death.

(stage scene) Sgt.: Okay, where do you go after you leave the Fireside? Aaron: Some kid wanted a ride home…

(McCrea) This scene towards the end of the play is with a Laramie police sergeant and the main perpetrator of the crime, Aaron McKinney. McKinney’s character is played by Nathaniel Beliveau, a gay student at St. Michael’s.

(stage scene continues) Sgt.: What’s he look like? Aaron: Like a queer. Such a queer dude. SGT: He looks like a queer? Aaron: Yeah, like a fag, you know?

(Beliveau) "I knew that doing Aaron was going to be a struggle, it was going to be difficult. Just cuz, as gay student, you – I mean, personally back in grade school, I was bullied a lot. And so I know what those comments feel like."

… But knowing that someone can overcome them, and that good is coming from evil – you get that power, that energy, to say "I have to say these really hurtful things, but it will do good in the end".

(McCrea) In addition to the play, and the appearance by Judy Shepard, St. Michael’s has plans for a community forum, to explore the issue of ongoing social injustice in Vermont.

Michelle Merola is president of Common Ground, a Gay-Straight Alliance at St. Michael’s.

(Merola) The idea of the community forum was to sort of talk about the universality of hate. I think it’s a good way to bring it back from Wyoming to Vermont. A lot of people think Wyoming – oh it’s so far away and it’s a republican state, but, a lot of the hatred and lack of acceptance is happening in Vermont, too.

(McCrea) In her visit to Vermont, Judy Shepard talked about her son’s legacy, and how she feels life in the gay community has improved since his death, nearly a decade ago. She thinks it’s "great" that Vermont passed a civil union law, but she says she wants legislation that gives the gay community the same rights as everyone else in the country-to keep a job, to adopt children, to marry.

(Shepard) "I understand that marriage is an issue that’s going to be tough to settle into or get people used to. But I think 20 years from now we’re going to look back and go ‘What was the big deal?’ No same-sex couple getting married is gonna affect anyone else’s relationship. I understand the word is the problem.

But you know, why would we deny anyone the right to be together with the people they love. It just seems like the greatest gift anyone could give-is to love and be loved in return."

(McCrea) As director of The Laramie Project, Peter Harrigan hopes the audience will take home the fundamental message of the play-that it’s not about tolerance, it’s about acceptance of the gay community, and all communities.

(Harrigan) One thing Judy Shepard mentioned that I truly believe is that we need to dispense with the word tolerance. As a gay man, I’m not really interested in being tolerated. I’d like to be accepted and be afforded equal rights and protection. I’d like to feel a stronger sense of safety than I do-even in Vermont! And I hope the production is able to get that message out in terms of the needs the gay community still faces, even in places like Vermont, where we have made so many gains…

(McCrea) And St. Michael’s College hopes the entire social justice series will help promote true acceptance-both on a personal level, and across the community.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Lynne McCrea

(Host) The Laramie Project will be staged, free to the public, tonight through Saturday at 7:00 at St. Michael’s College. And the college presents a community forum this Saturday at 2:00, discussing how bias incidents and hate speech affect us in Vermont.





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