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Hate takes center stage: 25 years after a brutal murder, the nation rallies behind a play



The crime struck a chord of hate throughout the nation. And the ensuing play about it has been trying to help America understand its consequences for nearly two and a half decades.

On the month of the 25th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s brutal beating and death in Laramie, Wyoming, lawyers, prosecutors and theatre groups across the nation are aiming to minimize hate against the LGBTQ+ community by hosting performances of The Laramie Project, a play highlighting the intense emotions around the case.

Shepard, a 21-year-old openly gay student from the University of Wyoming, was brutally attacked, tied to a remote fence and left to die on Oct. 7, 1998, by two roofing workers in one of the nation’s most grueling anti-gay hate crimes. Days later, he died in a hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado.

The case inspired Venezuelan theatre director and filmmaker Moisés Kaufman and his New York City-based stage and theater group The Tectonic Project to create The Laramie Project. The documentary play portrays the community’s response to the crime and the media frenzy at the time.

More than two decades later, the play is getting another tour of sorts, as communities throughout the nation put on their own productions, from South Carolina to Wisconsin to Wyoming.

Several involved with the performances and other activists for LGBTQ+ rights told USA TODAY they are painfully aware of the play’s relevance years later.

“This production serves as a tribute to Matthew Shepard’s memory and begs us to ask the question of what more can we do to prevent acts of hate against the LGBTQ+ in our community,” said Abigail Lee McNeely, the director of the reading of The Laramie Project presented by the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina, University of South Carolina School of Law and the Richland County Bar Association.

The notable anniversary of the hate crime aligns with a surge of hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community in the U.S., new data released on Oct. 16. from the Federal Bureau of Investigations shows. Discrimination against transgender and nonbinary people in the U.S. is on the rise. Some school boards are banning readings of the play. And two states – Wyoming and South Carolina – do not have local laws criminalizing hate crimes.

In an interview with USA TODAY, Kaufman said he never expected it to be as pertinent to today’s culture.

“On one hand, there is pride in that (The Laramie Project) still continues to be done. But I wish we were in a world where it ceased to be relevant. Unfortunately, it’s more relevant now in our community. They’re specifically targeting the transgender community,” he said.

Matthew Shepard's brutal killing at age 21 in Laramie, Wyo., inspired a play and film called "The Laramie Project."

What is the Laramie Project?

On Oct 7, 1998, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard met two men who claimed to be gay at Fireside Bar in Laramie. The events that transpired after they left the bar led to his death.

“Two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, abducted Matt and drove him to a remote area east of Laramie, Wyoming,” reads an account of the case from the Matthew Shepard Foundation‘s website.

“He was tied to a split-rail fence where the two men severely assaulted him with the butt of a pistol. He was beaten and left to die in the cold of the night. Almost 18 hours later, he was found by a bicyclist who initially mistook him for a scarecrow,” it continues.

Shepard died from the wounds of his injuries at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado on Oct. 12, 1998.

After the crime rose to national headlines, Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie, Wyoming, to interview people in Laramie, including the bartender who was at the Fireside on the night of Shepard’s murder, the Wyoming state governor, Detective Sergeant Hing of the Laramie Police Department.

“Little did we know that we would devote two years to the project,” wrote Kaufman in an introduction to the script of the play. “We returned to Laramie many times over the course of the next year and conducted more than two hundred interviews.”

The play compiles their accounts of the crime and the media storm surrounding Shepard’s death and is meant to be performed on a stage with few tables and chairs and simple costumes. Some of the accounts from actual people include the man who discovered Shepard tied to a fence and a local Catholic priest.

The Laramie Project has heightened human consciousness about discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community and awareness about Shepard’s case since its first show in Denver on Feb. 26, 2000. It has been performed in at least 20 countries around the world and the play was made into a movie in 2002.

Kaufman writes: “There are moments in history when a particular event brings the various ideologies and beliefs prevailing in a culture into sharp focus. … By paying careful attention in moments like this to people’s words, one is able to hear the way these prevailing ideas affect not only individual lives but also the culture at large.”

When The Laramie Project premiered, acts and sentiments of hate and discrimination toward the LGBTQ+ community were primarily geared toward people who were gay, lesbian, or bisexual. In recent years, transgender and nonbinary communities have been the target of right-wing groups and politicians.

“I think the play elicits conversation not only about homophobia but about religion and masculinity and fault lines that are still dividing us culturally,” Kaufman said in an interview with USA TODAY. “It’s very very very much at the forefront of people who want to stage it.”

“I worry that the troupes being used against the trans and nonbinary community are the same that were used against the gay community,” Kaufman continued. “It’s painful to see the same troupes come back unquestioned.”

Wisconsin director: ‘I feel like we’re going backward’

In Eau Claire, Wisconsin, it’s the first time Wayne Marek’s Eau Claire Children’s Theatre will stage the show. The play will be performed for adults by adults at the theatre, he said.

“If there was ever a time to do it it would be now,” said Marek, who is the executive director of the theatre. “The biggest takeaway is from an interview early last week with Judy Shepard who said she was feeling like this should not be relevant anymore.”

“That is certainly not the case with (several) anti-LGBTQ bills passed in the legislature passed,” said Marek. “It feels like we’re going backward.”

Ahead of the Thursday debut of the show, Marek said he expected the audience to be captured by scenes in the play showing medical updates on Shepard’s injuries and his father’s court testimony offering mercy and sparing the death penalty to his assailants

25 years later: Wyoming, South Carolina go without additional penalties for hate crimes

National lawyers and prosecutors from South Carolina held staged readings of The Laramie Project in hopes of increasing the reporting of hate crimes in the state. South Carolina and Wyoming, where Shepard was killed, are the only two states without a state law allowing prosecutors to charge for hate crimes. (Some advocates for hate crime laws have critiqued other state laws for being too broad.)

“State hate crime laws are still important, because not all crimes may fall under federal jurisdiction,” reads the Movement Advancement Project’s website. The independent, nonprofit think tank is tracking state hate crime laws across the nation.

U.S. Attorney for the Department of Justice South Carolina Adair Ford Boroughs said her department held readings of The Laramie Project to inform South Carolina residents that they can report hate crimes under a federal law created in part in response to Shepard’s case. Despite not having a state law that outlaws hate crimes in the state, the DOJ and FBI can prosecute those crimes under federal law.

“A lot of the public doesn’t realize there is a federal one, and that there are options to report hate crimes to federal law enforcement and have them prosecuted,” said Boroughs.

She said her office in January charged two South Carolina men with the federal hate crime law for shooting and killing Dime Doe, a 24-year-old transgender woman in Allendale County, as one example.

The men who kidnapped, tortured and killed Shepard – Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson – were ultimately convicted and charged with life sentences in prison. They were not charged with hate crimes because Wyoming did not have a state law outlawing those offenses at the time.

Prosecutors in South Carolina and Wyoming can use the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a federal law created by U.S. Congress in response in part to Shepard’s death that criminalizes those offenses, to criminalize anyone who commits or attempts to commit bodily harm because of who they are, including on the basis of race, gender identity and sexual orientation. Former President Barack Obama signed the act into law on Oct. 22, 2009.

(In the same year Shepard was killed, James Byrd, a Black man who lived in Jasper, Texas, was brutally tortured and murdered by three white men, two of whom were avowed white supremacists before they left the remains of his body outside of an African American church.)

“Enforcing this hate crimes law and other civil rights protections is central to the mission of the Department of Justice,” reads the DOJ’s news release.

LGBTQ+ advocates track hate against trans communities

The FBI’s latest “Crime in the Nation” report shows of all hate crimes, “11,288 single-bias incidents involved 13,278 victims.” More than half of the crimes were based on race or ethnicity, 17.2% were based on sexual orientation and 4% were based on gender identity.

The Human Rights Council estimates the data shows a “13.8% increase in reports based on sexual orientation and a shocking 32.9% jump in reported hate crimes based on gender identity” compared to 2021, the national nonprofit group wrote in a news release.

The Human Rights Campaign, a national nonprofit organization, in June declared a state of emergency over the onslaught of laws in recent years targeting LGBTQ+ people in America. The organization is tracking anti-LGBTQ+ legislation across the country. They estimate more than 520 anti-LGBTQ+ laws have been introduced, more than 220 bills target transgender and nonbinary people and 70 of those laws have been passed and enacted in 2023.

“Twenty-five years after Matthew Shepard was murdered I can’t help but think about who he was when he was on earth. He was someone who lived a life of passion, lived a life full of joy and lived a life full of love,” said Wolf. “Unfortunately, like so many others, he had that life stolen from him. It’s infuriating and heartbreaking 25 years later that too many others had their lives stolen from them.”

Heather Redding, left, and Elizabeth Waugh, of Orange County, North Carolina, rally for transgender rights outside the state Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023. North Carolina Republicans will attempt Wednesday to override the Democratic governor's veto of legislation banning gender-affirming health care for minors.

Casey Pick, a director of law and policy for The Trevor Project, a national nonprofit organization that focuses on suicide prevention and crisis intervention for LGBTQ+ youth, said Shepard’s tragic death inspires the organization to continue to advocate for those who are harmed.

“Today, as we continue to see record-breaking anti-LGBTQ legislative attacks, threats, and violence targeting our communities, we recognize that this critical work is far from over,” said Pick. “It is going to take all of us working together to increase protections against LGBTQ attacks and hate crimes across the country and helping educate and raise awareness to foster a more accepting, safer, and loving world for us all.”

Results of a national survey conducted by The Trevor Project show that many LGBTQ+ youth have been harmed, and even more are anxious about being harmed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Nearly one in four LGBTQ young people have been physically threatened or harmed in the past year due to their sexual orientation or gender identity,” the results of their survey read. The group surveyed more than 28,500 LGBTQ people between the ages of 13 and 24 this year.

School book bans hit The Laramie Project

The 25th anniversary of Shepard’s death also comes at a time when schools are banning books on content that addresses racial, social and LGBTQ+ issues.

For the first 20 years of The Laramie Project’s existence, Kaufman said there would be one to two school boards across the nation each year that would block students from performing the play on their campuses.

That escalated last year when Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education Act, commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay Bill.” The bill prohibits educators from teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity in some Florida classrooms.

Earlier this year, the Lansing Board of Education in Lansing, Kansas voted to ban the book containing the script of the play from Lansing High School’s curriculum. The ban came after the mother of an English student at the school complained, according to Fox4 News.

In response, Kaufman said The Tectonic Project sent free scripts of The Laramie Project to any student at the school who wanted one.

‘Welcome home’:Matthew Shepard interred at Washington National Cathedral

Contact Kayla Jimenez at Follow her on X, formerly Twitter, at @kaylajjimenez

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