A new book about the Matthew Shepard murder challenges the theater community to reevaluate a cherished play
On October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard was viciously beaten and left tied to a fence unconscious on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. He died six days later.
Beginning November 1998, a group of theater artists in New York City, seeking to tell the story of Matthew’s murder, spent a year and a half traveling to Laramie, conducting and transcribing interviews with more than 200 members of the University of Wyoming and Laramie communities, and creating from those documentary texts a two-act play by Moisés Kaufman and members of Tectonic Theater Project called The Laramie Project.
Beginning in 2000, a seasoned investigative journalist and television producer named Stephen Jimenez spent thirteen years seeking to learn the real circumstances that led to Matthew’s death. He interviewed more than 100 people with first-hand knowledge, in Laramie, Denver, and elsewhere, and examined numerous public records and media archives. He tells the results of his extensive research in The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard (due out in paperback September 16, 2014).
The Book of Matt and The Laramie Project do not jibe. They tell completely different stories. On substantial and significant points of fact, The Book of Matt contradicts The Laramie Project. And I believe this is a disconnect that the theater community needs to acknowledge and learn from.
In fall 2013 The Laramie Project was produced in Washington, DC, by Ford’s Theatre as part of its prestigious Lincoln Legacy Project, “a multi-year effort to create dialogue in our nation’s capital around the issues of tolerance, equality and acceptance.” Concurrently Ford’s Theatre devoted an entire floor of its museum to an exhibition titled “Not Alone: The Power of Response,” featuring letters written to Matthew Shepard’s parents in the aftermath of his murder, as well as a wall-length photograph of the probable scene of the crime, the remote fence to which Matthew was tied. During the federal shutdown, which temporarily closed Ford’s Theatre, I wrote an admiring column about the show as performed at a nearby church. Everything about the production and the exhibition was premised on the assumption that The Laramie Project was a docudrama worthy of this distinguished theater’s underwriting and endorsement. But what if The Laramie Project contains untruths? What if The Book of Matt gets the facts about Matthew’s murder right and the play got them wrong? Were Ford’s Theatre and I unwittingly complicit in delivering disinformation?
I would argue: no. And here’s why.
Countless audience members (like me) have been, and will continue to be, deeply moved by The Laramie Project. Thousands of theater artists have collaborated to breathe life into it onstage, and others in the future will continue to do so. This is as it should be; as theater The Laramie Project is powerful. But if The Book of Matt is to be believed, The Laramie Project cannot be. The Laramie Project beautifully tells a truth (the way well-wrought myths and oft-told legends and eloquent metaphors do). But considering all that Stephen Jimenez’s reporting has now brought to light, The Laramie Project can no longer be said to factually tell the truth of what led up to Matthew Shepard’s murder.
If The Book of Matt is to be believed (and I do, as I will explain), Matthew’s tragedy began long before the night he was killed. As a kid he sensed he was different. He was slight of stature and his puberty was not forthcoming, so his parents put him on hormone shots—the beginning of what became a life-long drug dependency. He was sexually molested as a child by a male relative, and he was said to have been gang-raped as an adolescent—traumatic events with long-term psychic wounds that often go unhealed. His body frequently evidenced bruises, scratches, cuts. He self-medicated with drugs, both prescription and street. For the last years of his life he was using and dealing methamphetamine. He was pimped for sex. He was HIV positive. The money he spent lavishly—as on frequent limo rides to the gay drug scene in Denver and Fort Collins—he obtained from his parents, from selling drugs, and from selling his body to desirous older men. Matthew was a kid for whom “It gets better” never happened; it only ever got worse. Moreover, before that fateful night Matthew knew one of his assailants, Aaron McKinney. He and Matthew moved in the same intersecting circles of illicit drugs and gay male prostitution in Laramie and Denver. Then twenty-one, Aaron had been ragingly high on a crystal meth bender for a full week.
What precipitated the murder was a brutal meth-fueled assault over a drug deal gone wrong. Though the victim was a young gay man, it was not a gay hate crime. Aaron McKinney was bisexual. Matthew and Aaron were sometimes pimped by the same older man. On several occasions Matthew and Aaron had had consensual sex.
I’ll pause a moment here, because that paragraph has a lot to process. For anyone unfamiliar with The Book of Matt, that précis will sound like heresy. It flies in the face of what the media (gay and otherwise) have been telling us for years (a reporting error whose origin The Book of Matt tracks down). Worse, it seems to besmirch the memory of a beloved martyr (it doesn’t at all; it makes Matthew’s life story even more important to us, as I will explain).
Imagine for a moment Elizabethan England, during the years Shakespeare’s chronicle plays were staged at the Globe. Suppose that, for any one of those scripts, there had been an investigative reporter who could travel back in time, get access to a plentitude of primary sources and interview subjects, and return with a comprehensively researched manuscript that refuted what Shakespeare wrote. (This hypothetical isn’t completely far-fetched; Shakespeare tended to bend facts in order to flatter his audience’s devotion to the monarchy—and that’s when pieces of the historical record were known to him. Sometimes he just made stuff up.) Would such an intrepid reporter’s detective work lessen the worth of Shakespeare’s dramatic composition, its power to play on stage and move and engage us? No, not a whit. As everyone now accepts, there are implied air quotes whenever Shakespeare’s “history” plays are performed. Nobody mistakes them for docudrama.
I submit that the theater world now needs to reframe The Laramie Project in precisely the same way: Continue to produce and perform and appreciate it, but as an artful passion play, a resonant and multi-voiced portrayal of a community’s struggle to come to terms with its collective conscience—not as a historically accurate depiction of a crime. And I would urge Tectonic Theater Project to join in this reframing by no longer claiming that The Laramie Project accurately renders the real reason Matthew was murdered. (In January I emailed Moisés Kaufman, the artistic director of Tectonic, telling him I would be writing an essay about questions raised by The Book of Matt and requesting an interview. He has not responded.)
In fairness, at the time members of Tectonic Theater Project initially visited Laramie, the media had already broadcast the “gay hate crime” narrative around the world. So no wonder that was the understanding shared by all the students and townspeople quoted in The Laramie Project script. What else could they have known? Nothing of Stephen Jimenez’s investigative reporting had yet appeared.
Far more problematic is The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, a play by Moisés Kaufman, Leigh Fondakowski, Greg Pierotti, Andy Paris, and Stephen Belber, based on interviews the authors conducted in September 2008. The play quotes Laramie resident Jim Osborne, a friend of Matthew’s:
After the media storm died down here in Laramie…there were a lot of folks who simply didn’t want to talk about Matthew Shepard anymore. They were tired of their community and their lives being the nightly news. They were tired of feeling the stigma of having such a heinous crime occur in our community.
The shared pain of that stigma can be heard throughout Ten Years Later. But by the time its authors returned to Laramie, portions of Jimenez’s reporting were already known to many Laramie residents. In 2004 ABC News 20/20 aired “The Matthew Shepard Story: Secrets of a Murder,” which Jimenez coproduced with Glenn Silber. These citizens naturally welcomed what this network news report said, because it meant the shame they had been living with for a decade was unwarranted. Matthew’s horrific murder had not been motivated by gay hate.
But that’s not the story Ten Years Later tells. Instead the play is an argument against that 20/20 broadcast. Constantly the script challenges any belief based on it, for instance in this exchange with Deb Thomsen, the editor of the local Laramie newspaper who herself reported on the murder case:
DEB THOMSEN. You know, we’re trying to put this behind us, and keep going. I would have to say that most people in the community, they’re aware of what’s happened here, but they are really moving on from this. You have brutality and you deal with it, and you move on.
MOISÉS KAUFMAN. Mm-hmm.
DEB THOMSEN. I do think that it brought forth a different awareness…and I hate to speak on behalf of the community, but I don’t believe that the catalyst was homosexuality.
MOISÉS KAUFMAN. What do you mean?
DEB THOMSEN. I really believe they [the killers] wanted money. And Matthew didn’t have what they thought and it just escalated to an anger that was totally out of control. There was so much speculation about drug use. I just don’t think it was about his sexuality.
MOISÉS KAUFMAN. (Surprised.) So you don’t think it was a hate crime?
Kaufman’s leading/shaming question gets THOMSEN back on message for his play’s purposes:
DEB THOMSEN. I think everything is a hate crime. You have to have some kind of hatred in you to do that to another human being.
Given what was knowable and known at the time from Jimenez’s 20/20 broadcast, Ten Years Later’s persistent insistence on Matthew’s murder as a gay hate crime reads like a concerted disparagement of the Laramie citizenry, and a bald-faced protection of the royalty-generating franchise that Kaufman and Tectonic had in The Laramie Project. In my view The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later is an inferior dramatic work: self-serving, deceptive, and unworthy of being staged any more.
The Laramie Project does not need to be propped up and sullied by Ten Years Later. Rereading The Laramie Project after having read The Book of Matt, I found it just as artful as before, and I saw more clearly that the people portrayed in the play were simply and honestly speaking their emotional truth from what they believed to be true—so their words and feelings still have deep resonance and rich meaning. (One exception is the character of Doc the limo driver, who appears to have taken many people for a ride, including Tectonic company members, and I will say more about his special case in a moment.) What impressed me most upon rereading The Laramie Project was that the story it tells has power and cultural relevance irrespective of its factual accuracy, in exactly the way great theater has always offered audiences myths they need and want to live by. That’s one way we know who we are as humans, and a big reason our species makes art.
But how did “gay hate crime” get attached to news of Matthew’s murder in the first place? The Book of Matt traces the origin of that misinterpretation to two independent and unrelated sources. One was a pair of gay friends of Matthew’s who leapt on their own to the conclusion that the murder was an anti-gay hate crime and blurted their assumption to a local gay reporter they knew and local gay organizations. The anti-gay attack angle made the story huge, the Associated Press and other national media ran with it, news crews descended on Laramie, and Matthew’s murder made headlines everywhere. The two friends, however, had had no first-hand knowledge of the crime or the police investigation. They simply spoke from their heart, albeit off the top of their head.
The other source was Aaron McKinney, who lived with his teenage girlfriend and their child. Aaron was well known for his short temper and violent aggression, even when not high on meth, and he was surely feared by Russell Henderson, the other young man convicted of killing Matthew. Russell was like a subordinate sidekick to the domineering Aaron, and as such Russell became a passive participant in the crime—he was so intimidated by Aaron that he went along, did as he was told, and kept quiet about it. Both Aaron and Russell were comfortable socializing with lesbian women and gay men. (In one of several odd twists Jimenez reports, Aaron’s girlfriend’s mother was in a lesbian relationship at the time, as was Russell’s girlfriend’s mother.) The “gay panic defense”—the story that Aaron went ballistic because that night in a bar Matthew came on to him and later grabbed his crotch—was a complete fabrication, fed by Aaron’s and his girlfriend’s shared interest in portraying him as heterosexual, and by Aaron’s hope it would mitigate his sentence. The gay panic narrative strained credulity even at the time. At worst an unwanted crotch grab might get your lights punched out if you’re dumb enough to try it on someone who’s brawny and you’re scrawny. But savagely murdered? As Jimenez explains, the scenario makes no sense because that’s not at all what happened.
Does the fact that Matthew’s murder was not a gay hate crime diminish the validity of the hate crime legislation it prompted? Of course not. That law, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr,. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, was long overdue. Similarly, does the fact that Matthew’s murder was not a gay hate crime invalidate the play it prompted? No, absolutely not—because the world of the play arose during a period when gay hate crimes were invisible, and when a shared belief that Matthew’s murder was one of them served to enlighten and uplift the conscience of a nation. Even though Matthew’s murder was not a gay hate crime, it’s not as if there were no others so society was off the hook and compunction was uncalled for. As a dramatic synecdoche for necessary truth, therefore, The Laramie Project is not an erroneous fiction. Shaping moral meaning from myth, legend, and metaphor is what theater has done for ages. The Laramie Project belongs to that noble canon.
The Book of Matt makes only one reference to The Laramie Project, where Jimenez interviews two sources, Shannon Shingleton and Jenny Malmskog, who attended drug parties that were also attended by Aaron and Matthew (pp. 165–166; brackets in the original):
Not long after Matthew’s murder, Shingleton, and Malmskog were interviewed extensively by members of New York’s Tectonic Theater Project, creators of the docudrama The Laramie Project. Both Shingleton and Malmskog were later listed in the on-screen credits of HBO’s adaptation of the play.
“We talked to those guys for hours,” Malmskog recalled.
“I told people [from the Tectonic] everything I knew,” Shingleton added, including what he knew firsthand of Aaron’s and Matthew’s involvement with crystal meth.
Shingleton said he was “angry at how fake [The Laramie Project] is” and he couldn’t understand why its makers had betrayed the truth to make a political statement.
The accusation that Kaufman and Tectonic “betrayed the truth” is harsh. But as a theatrical matter, whether they left out these sources’ information to suit a political agenda is moot. At the time the play premiered in February 2000, mention of Matthew’s immersion in drugs would have seemed a red-herring.
Having carefully compared the text of The Laramie Project against The Book of Matt, I found the most striking discrepancy to be the play’s portrayal of Doc O’Connor. The script describes him as “Limousine driver and local entrepreneur, in his fifties.” In performance the character comes off as a kindly, avuncular fellow who offers Matthew and his friends lifts in his limo and is unusually well informed about the gay scene. Doc says in one of his early speeches:
Let me tell you something else here. There’s more gay people in Wyoming than meets the eye. I know, I know for a fact. They’re not particularly, ah, the whattayou call them, the queens, the gay people, queens, you know, runaround faggot-type people. No, they’re the ones that throw bails of hay, jump on horses, brand ’em, and kick ass, you see what I’m saying? As I always say, Don’t fuck with a Wyoming queer, ’cause they will kick you in your fucking ass, but that’s not the point of what I’m trying to say. ’Cause I know a lot of gay people in Wyoming, I know a lot of people period. I’ve been lived up here some forty-odd years, you see what I’m saying?
In real life, as Jimenez learned firsthand, Doc O’Connor is a piece of work and quite the con artist. Apparently he snowed Tectonic into believing him blameless, but according to named sources in The Book of Matt, Doc O’Connor once ran a house of female prostitution, regularly transported Matthew and other young people to Denver for drugs, and was sometimes Matthew’s and Aaron’s pimp. O’Connor must have been pleased that the creators of The Laramie Project have made of his dubious profile such a benign portrait. But does the cleaned-up character of Doc work dramatically in the play? Yes, no question. The Doc character fits perfectly among the dramatis personae because he colorfully locates and contextualizes the story. Plus, it’s a great part for an actor.
At first I regarded publication of The Book of Matt with complete skepticism based on the dismissive and discrediting reports about it I read in the gay press. I had decided I would not bother with it. Then one day my hair stylist started telling me about the book. He and his coworkers were reading it, avidly. He told me bits of what they’d learned. I was intrigued. He told me I must read it.
OK, I thought, I will. But I will not pay money that would go to the publisher of something that could turn out to be scurrilous; instead I will borrow the book from a library. So that is what I did.
I found reading The Book of Matt absolutely absorbing, compelling, and persuasive—so much so that as soon as I finished, I purchased my own copy and began rereading it and marking passages with sticky tabs. I tracked other published commentary and noted that in contrast to the derisive stuff I’d read, a number of writers for reputable journals had taken The Book of Matt very seriously (for instance The Nation, The Advocate, and Lambda Literary). I also contacted the author and conducted several in-depth interviews, which I will use in another piece I am writing, about the real tragedy of Matthew Shepard.
Just as disclosures in The Book of Matt challenge the theater community to reframe its understanding of The Laramie Project, so too they challenge us as a caring society to revise our understanding of the meaning of Matthew Shepard’s life.
Ignoring the full tragedy of Matthew’s story—keeping him the poster boy of gay hate crime though that’s not what happened—has been the agenda of many gay-movement leaders and custodians of Matthew’s legacy ever since Stephen Jimenez’s reportage first appeared. I fail to see what higher purpose this determined blinkeredness serves. On the contrary, I believe that ignoring the tragedies that preceded Matthew’s murder will only serve to ensure that other youth who are sexually violated, ensnared by drugs, and sold for sex will remain invisible and lost.
Informed attention must be paid. Really reckoning with Matthew’s life story, including its dark sides, could open society’s eyes to see the similarly broken lives of other young people. And maybe help save them. And that would be Matthew’s honest legacy.
Review of ‘The Laramie Project’ at Ford’s Theatre by Amanda Gunther.
Review of ‘The Laramie Project Cycle’ at BAM by Justin Schneider.
Review of ‘The Laramie Project’ at Front & Center Stage by Max Johnson.
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