By showing different characters’ reactions to Matthew Shepard’s homosexuality, The Laramie Project explores how communities and individuals deal with people who deviate from behaviors and identities that are considered “normal.” As the play opens, it quickly becomes clear that, at the time when Matthew Shepard was murdered, being gay was considered by most people in Laramie to be outside of the norm, and gay people were ostracized and discriminated against as a result. Several gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters comment on the difficulty of living in Laramie, and one character, Jonas Slonaker, mentions how many people who grew up in Wyoming left because of the state’s profound homophobia.
Despite these lived and expressed experiences of homophobia, many members of the Laramie community insist they are tolerant. Tolerance, however, means ignoring differences (including different sexual identities) rather than truly accepting them. Doc O’Connor, a friend of Matthew’s, says, “Wyoming people don’t give a damn one way or another whether you’re gay or straight.” Marge Murray, meanwhile, insists that Laramie is “live and let live,” saying that most people don’t mind gay people “as long as they don’t bother [them].” While both of these stances appear to be fairly tolerant, they also depend on being blind to difference, rather than acknowledging and accepting it.
Because they view Laramie as a place that, through its culture of “live and let live,” is passively tolerant, many people assert that Matthew’s murder was a singular tragedy that the rest of the community should not be blamed for. Eileen and Gil Engen, for example, write Aaron and Russell off as just a few “bad apples” in a town that is full of good people. Some characters refuse to acknowledge that Matthew’s murder had to do with his sexuality at all, like Sherry Johnson, who tries to ignore the bigotry linked to Matthew’s murder by saying that every murder is a “hate crime.” However, while Laramie’s residents insist they are tolerant (or at least that they do not condone murder on account of intolerance), the play also suggests that the community played a role in shaping the men who murdered Matthew. Aaron's friend Shannon tells the playwrights that Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson are "a product of their society,” suggesting that he blames the community around them for teaching them to hate. Even people who are not sympathetic to the murderers blame the town culture for the murder—in an email to Philip Dubois, one critic writes that the murder is "not just the work of a couple of random crazies," and that the townspeople "all have blood on their hands.”
By showing how the community at large may be responsible for the homophobia that drove Aaron and Russell to murder Matthew, the play forces the reader to question the value of a community that fosters tolerance without acceptance. As Zubaida Ula states, Laramie “is that kind of a town. If it wasn’t this kind of town, why did this happen here? [emphasis added]” Clearly Zubaida sees the “tolerance” that Laramie believes it possesses as insufficient. The Laramie Project suggests that merely putting up with people who are gay or otherwise “different” is not enough to maintain a safe and comfortable community for everyone. Instead, Laramie and towns like it need to encourage real acceptance by understanding and respectfully encountering other people’s differences, not just ignoring them.
Following Matthew Shepard’s death, many people in Laramie do work to figure out how to reeducate themselves and their peers. Some characters that were already accepting of homosexuality (some of whom were gay, lesbian, or bisexual themselves) are no longer content with allowing intolerance to exist in their communities. Romaine Patterson, for example, is moved to activism after Matthew’s murder, organizing a counter-protest to Fred Phelps’s demonstration at the funeral and deciding to attend an undergraduate program in politics. Other characters, meanwhile, adjust their own viewpoints, moving from a homophobic stance to one that is more accepting. Jedidiah Schultz is one such character, and he expresses regret for the homophobia he used to harbor. Jedidiah also works to challenge the people around him to rethink their own prejudices (particularly his parents). Even characters who don’t end up fully accepting homosexuality are at least moved to reevaluate their priorities following the murder. Rulon Stacey, the hospital spokesperson, maintains his religious objections to homosexuality even after his interaction with the Shepards, but he does empathize profoundly with Matthew and his family, and in doing so seems to make a small step towards a more open-minded stance. Although these changes are slow (one character does note the lack of legislative action against hate crimes in the year following Matthew’s death), the playwrights seem to empathize with the difficulty of changing deeply-held views about homosexuality, and they appear to celebrate even the smallest progresses that citizens of Laramie make towards becoming a more genuinely accepting community.
Homophobia, Tolerance, and Acceptance ThemeTracker
Homophobia, Tolerance, and Acceptance Quotes in The Laramie Project
As far as the gay issue, I don’t give a damn one way or the other as long as they don’t bother me. And even if they did, I’d just say no thank you. And that’s the attitude of most of the Laramie population. They might poke one, if they were in a bar situation you know, they had been drinking, they might actually smack one in the mouth, but then they’d just walk away…Laramie is live and let live.
They were both my patients and they were two kids. I took care of both of them…of both their bodies. And… for a brief moment I wondered if this is how God feels when he looks down at us. How we are all his kids…Our bodies…Our souls…And I felt a great deal of compassion…for both of them…
Some people are saying he made a pass at them. You don’t pick up regular people. I’m not excusing their actions, but it made me feel better because it was partially Matthew Shepard’s fault and partially the guys who did it… you know maybe it’s fifty-fifty.
And it’s even in some of the Western literature, you know, live and let live. That is such crap. I tell my friends that—even my gay friends bring it up sometimes. I’m like, “That is crap, you know?” I mean basically what it boils down to: If I don’t tell you I’m a fag, you won’t beat the crap out of me. I mean, what’s so great about that?
And for us to be more or less maligned…That we’re not a good community and we are—the majority of people here are good people.
Look, I do think that, um, the media actually made people accountable. Because they made people think. Because people were sitting in their homes, like watching TV and listening to CNN and watching Dan Rather and going, “Jesus Christ, well that’s not how it is here.” Well how is it here?
And quite frankly I wanted to lash out at somebody. Not at Matthew, please understand that, not one of us was mad at Matthew. But we maybe wanted to squeeze McKinney’s head off. And I think about Henderson. And, you know, two absolutely human beings cause so much grief for so many people.
You and the straight people of Laramie and Wyoming are guilty of the beating of Matthew Shepard just as the Germans who looked the other way are guilty of the deaths of the Jews, the Gypsies, and the homosexuals. You have taught your straight children to hate their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters—unless and until you acknowledge that Matt Shepard’s beating is not just a random occurrence, not just the work of a couple of random crazies, you have Matthew’s blood on your hands.
And someone got up there and said… c’mon guys, let’s show the world that Laramie is not this kind of a town, why did this happen here?... That’s a lie. Because it happened here. So how could it not be a town where this kind of thing happens?...And we have to mourn this and we have to be sad that we live in a town, a state, a country where shit like this happens. I mean, these are people trying to distance themselves from this crime. And we need to own this crime…We are like this.
I thought, “You know, should we…call the bishop and ask him permission to do the vigil?” And I was like, “Hell, no, I’m not going to do that.” His permission doesn’t make it correct, you realize that? And I’m not knocking bishops, but what is correct is correct.
You think violence is what they did to Matthew—they did do violence to Matthew—but, you know, every time that you are called a fag, or you are called a…dyke…Do you realize that is violence? That is the seed of violence. And I would resent it immensely if you use anything I said…to somehow cultivate that kind of violence…Just deal with what is true. You know what is true. You need to do your best to say it correct.
Now, those two people, the accused… I think they deserve the death penalty…Now as for the victim, I know that that lifestyle is legal, but I will tell you one thing. I hope that Matthew Shepard as he was tied to that fence that he had time to reflect on a moment when someone had spoken the word of the Lord to him—and that before he slipped into a coma he had a chance to reflect on his lifestyle.
And as I told you before, homosexuality is not a lifestyle with which I agree. Um, but having been thrown into this…I guess I didn’t understand the magnitude with which some people hate.
I decided that someone needed to stand toe to toe with this guy and show the differences. And I think at time like this when we’re talking about hatred as much as the nation is right now, that someone needs to show, that there is a better way of dealing with that kind of hatred. So our idea is to dress up like angels.
Well, once we started working into the case, and actually speaking to the people that were gay and finding out what their underlying fears were, well, then it sort of hit home. This is America. You don’t have the right to feel that fear. And we’re still going to have people who hold with the old ideals…I’m not gonna put up with it, and I’m not going to listen to it…I already lost a couple of buddies. I don’t care. I feel more comfortable and I can sleep at night.
I think right now our most important teachers must be Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. They have to be our teachers. How did you learn? What did we as a society do to teach you that? See, I don’t know if many people will let them be their teacher. I think it would be wonderful if the judge said, “In addition to your sentence, you must tell your story.”
I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. Mr. McKinney, I am going to grant you life, as hard as it is for me to do so, because of Matthew… I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives. May you have a long life and may you thank Matthew every day for it.
It just hit me today, the minute that I got out of the courthouse. That the reason that God wanted me to find him is, for he didn’t have to die out there alone, you know. And if I wouldn’t’ve came along, they wouldn’t’ve found him for a couple of weeks at least. So it makes me feel really good that he didn’t have to die out there alone.
Change is not an easy thing, and I don’t think people were up to it here… it’s been a year since Matthew Shepard died, and they haven’t passed shit in Wyoming…at a state level, any town, nobody anywhere, has passed any kind of laws, anti-discrimination laws or hate crime legislation… What’s come out of it…that’s concrete or lasting?