In depicting the aftermath of the murder of Matthew Shepard, The Laramie Project meditates on what counts as violence and what kinds of punishments are appropriate for violent acts. The violence against Matthew Shepard is the primary moral lens through which different characters explore their views on violence, punishment, and mercy. While the playwrights allow many different viewpoints to be expressed without judgment, they give the last word to Matthew Shepard’s family, who advocate for mercy.
Most characters in the play, even the ones who overtly condemn homosexuality, see the violence against Matthew Shepard as worthy of punishment (as it is under law). These same characters, however, often condone and excuse milder forms of violence without repercussion. Though Marge Murray thinks what happened to Matthew is terrible, she says nonchalantly that someone “might actually smack [a gay person] in the mouth” if they saw one at a bar, “but then they’d just walk away.” This suggests that, to many people in Laramie, smaller instances of violence against gay people are acceptable. Meanwhile, according to Father Roger Schmit, the Catholic priest in Laramie, the whole culture of discrimination in Laramie is a kind of socially acceptable violence. Father Roger says that “every time that you are called a fag…that is the seed of violence.” This statement implies that murder and verbal abuse are both violence, and these acts are separated only by degrees of intensity.
Some other people in Laramie, however, view Matthew’s murder as just, since they believe Matthew’s sexual orientation was “sinful.” This view is heavily implied by the Baptist Minister, who says that, although he knows that Matthew’s “lifestyle is legal,” he hopes that “before he slipped into a coma he had a chance to reflect on his lifestyle.” During his protest of Matthew’s funeral, Fred Phelps asks outright, “If God doesn’t hate fags, why does he put ‘em in hell?” While Fred Phelps expresses his thirst for violence more openly, both men seem to believe that Matthew’s murder is a kind of divine justice for what they view as his “sinful” homosexuality. Through these two characters, the play draws attention to the fact that some people’s conceptions of justice perpetuate violence, and their views might encourage people like Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson to execute their own kind of vigilante “justice” according to moral systems that deviate from the law.
At the end of the play, during Aaron and Russell’s trials, the playwrights explore most fully the complicated intersection of legal and moral justice. Capital punishment is legal in Wyoming, and Aaron and Russell’s crime makes them eligible for the death penalty. Several characters, including the Baptist Minister (who thinks that Matthew’s murder is justice for his sexuality), believe that Aaron and Russell should be put to death for their crimes. The prosecutors, however, in deference to the wishes of the Shepard family, allow Russell to take a plea deal for a life sentence and they do not ask for the death penalty for Aaron. Matthew Shepard’s father Dennis Shepard explains the family’s reasoning, stating that, although he “would like nothing better than to see [Aaron] die,” and although Matthew “believed that there were crimes…that justified the death penalty,” the family would not pursue the death penalty and would instead “show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy.”
The Shepard family’s decision not to ask for the death penalty marks their difference from people like the Baptist Minister who believe that a violent act should be punished through violence. Despite all that they have suffered, the Shepard family decides that, for them, justice means being merciful, and the best way to honor their son is to choose not to take two more lives. Dennis Shepard’s opinion is just one opinion on violence expressed in the play, but since his moving speech is the climax of the play, the playwrights give his opinion extra weight. Thus, The Laramie Project subtly suggests that punishing violence with violence only makes violence the norm, and that mercy can interrupt violent norms and help communities become more tolerant.
Violence, Punishment, and Justice ThemeTracker
Violence, Punishment, and Justice 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
And I remembered to myself the night he and I drove around together, he said to me, “Laramie sparkles, doesn’t it?” And where he was up there, if you sit exactly where he was, up there, Laramie sparkles from there…Matt was right there in that spot, and I can just picture in his eyes, I can just picture what he was seeing. The last thing he saw on this earth was the sparkling lights.