Movie: The Laramie Project
Release Date: January 10, 2002
Director: Moisés Kaufman
Starring: Nestor Carbonell, Christina Ricci, Dylan Baker, Terry Kinney, Lou Ann Wright, Peter Finda, Laura Linney, Camryn Manheim, Clea Duvall, Steve Buscemi, Amy Madigan, Janeane Garofalo,
Tag Lines: “When a small town comes face to face with murder, everybody has a tale to tell.”
“Everyone Carries a Piece of the Truth.”
Relevance: I did not know Matthew Shepard. I have never been to Laramie, Wyoming. However, both play a very important role in who I am as an adult gay man. 1998 was a tough year for me. I have written about it a few times on this blog most recently when discussing the film ‘In & Out’ (see 109. In & Out). That was the year that my entire life changed. I can say now it was definitely for the better, but back then I had quite a different outlook.
By the summer of 1998, after going through many dark, depressing months, I was finally dragged out of the closet and exposed as a gay man for all the world to see. So what did I do? I hid. I was never one to be comfortable in my own skin and now that a deep secret was exposed, my initial reaction was to cower. And that is what I did from June through September of 1998. I worked. A lot. The rest of my time was spent listening to music on long car rides or watching movies alone in my little apartment in a very tiny town in upstate New York. I avoided talking to friends and family as much as possible. I was having trouble looking at my own face in the mirror, why would I want to look in the eyes of someone that may now look at me as a disappointment? I needed that time alone, for reflection and to regain back some self-love.
By the beginning of that Fall I had found a couple of friends I felt comfortable with and started to become a little bit more social. My interactions with family and older friends had increased a bit, but were still not as frequent as they used to be. Baby steps. I needed to live on my own pace, not anyone else’s. I didn’t smile or laugh a lot during those months, but by September I felt a little bit of the old me creeping back in. But that’s when everything crumbled back to darkness.
On the night of October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a twenty-one year old man, was kidnapped, beaten, tortured and left for dead near Laramie, Wyoming. The story eventually made national news as more and more details surfaced about the story. Matt was gay and the case was being called a hate crime. As a newly out gay man, I became terrified. I did not live in Laramie, Wyoming, but I did live in a very small, backwards town in New York. I was terrified. The story had bubbled up so much hate across the country and what that hate reflected was people simply didn’t like “fags.” I had just been pushed put of the closet and suddenly only a few months later found myself jumping back in for fear of my life.
Matthew Shepard eventually passed away from his injuries on October 12, 1998. As much love, light and support that was out there for him, there was an equal amount of hatred and evil. I don’t think I left my house, besides work, for weeks after those events. The Matthew Shepard story was one that stayed around for quite a long time. The trial for one of the accused happened a year after his death. By that time, I will say I was a little bit more thick skinned and was starting to live openly as a gay man, but very cautiously. I lost my trust for people back then, which is something that never came back at a full hundred percent.
By 2002, I was living an openly gay life with a live-in partner and all. I wasn’t the strong activist I would eventually become, but I was no longer the scared little child. I had HBO at the time and I was excited for an upcoming made for television movie that the cable network would be airing that Spring. Titled, ‘The Laramie Project,’ I was both excited and apprehensive about how I would react watching the film. I remember seeing it the first time that March when it premiered and I felt gutted emotionally. All of those scared, unsure feelings I had just a few years ago crept back in over the ninety plus minutes I sat in front of the television. I cried non-stop, not just for the film, but for Matt himself. I never really had grieved for him before as I was more focused on me and my life. This movie made me look at him for who he was, a young gay man that became a hero and symbol for our movement. I wept long after the credits rolled.
The film was filled with many powerful moments. One such moment was Dennis Shepard’s speech in court thanks to a very touching performance by Terry Kinney. It was beautiful, emotional and tinged with hope for humanity. “Matt’s beating, hospitalization, and funeral focused worldwide attention on hate. Good is coming out of evil. People have said, ‘Enough is enough.'” And good finally did come out of evil, although it took ten years. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was passed and signed into law on October 28, 2009 by then President Barack Obama. As a side not, a similar bill did not pass in 2007 after then-President George W. Bush threatened to veto the bill. So please don’t ever tell me that elections don’t matter. Also, never, ever tell me to give up for fighting for what is right. Change will come. It just takes time.
‘The Laramie Project’ was a beautiful, award nominated adaptation of the play of the same name originally produced by the Tectonic Theater Project. I have had the esteem pleasure of seeing productions of this show a few times. It’s always poignant, always emotional and always thought provoking. There was also a sequel of sorts ‘The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later’ that was produced on stage again by Moises Kaufman and his group. The plays and movie were very important pieces of pop culture and ones that will keep the story of Matthew Shepard in our eyes and ears forever. I am thankful for the movie for allowing me to grieve for Matt, but mostly I am thankful for Matt who allowed me to be the gay man I am today.
Today’s Thoughts: “I remembered something to myself. The night he and I drove around together, he said, ‘Laramie sparkles, doesn’t it?’ And where he was in that spot up there, if you sit exactly in that spot up there, Laramie sparkles. With the low-lying clouds, it’s – uh – it’s the blue lights that bounce off the clouds from the airport. And it goes over the whole city. I mean, I mean, it blows you away. And Matt was right there in that spot. And I can just picture – in his eyes – what he was seeing. And the last thing that he saw on this Earth was the sparkling lights of Laramie, Wyoming.”
‘The Laramie Project’ is a very difficult film for me to watch. I do however watch it every year on or around October 12 in memory of Matt, so that I never, ever forget. Not that I ever could. I skipped watching it earlier this month as I knew the film was about to appear on my list of most influential movies of all time. It’s a tough one for me to endure and I thought twice in the span of a few weeks would be overkill. So today, with a box of Kleenex by my side, I sat down and watched ‘The Laramie Project.’
I didn’t even make it two minutes into the film before I started blubbering like an idiot. It’s an emotional story and a very emotional film. It is extremely well done and I applaud Moises Kaufman, the Tectonic Theater Project and the terrific ensemble of actors for this beautiful tribute that needed to be told. It’s a story that is now over twenty years old, but one that is still as raw as ever for me. I have a feeling that rawness will never fade.
We live in very difficult times right now; a time when people are not held accountable for their words or actions, a time when being mean and a bully is celebrated and a time when it’s okay to do whatever you want regardless of anyone else’s feelings. We live in a time when my husband and I, simply walking down the street, get called “fags” by a passing car.
We are in the Trump era. And that era needs to end.
Usually I would now encourage all of you to watch today’s film. And I do. But I also urge all of you reading this to vote in this year’s election. Vote early or on election day. I don’t care how you do it, just vote. And please vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as well as every Democrat on the ballot. Elections do matter.
Vote for decency. Vote for empathy. Vote for the memory of Matthew Shepard.
We need our country back.
Awards: Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Made for Television Movie (nomination), Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Casting for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special, Ann Guilder (nomination), Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special, Moises Kaufman (nomination), Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special, Stephen Belber, Leigh Fondakowski, Amanda Gronich, Moises Kaufman, Jeffrey LaHoste, John McAdams, Andy Paris, Greg Pierotti, Barbara Pitts, Kelli Simpkins, Stephen Wangh (nomination). National Board of Review Award for Best Film Made for Cable TV (winner), PGA Award for Outstanding Producer of Long-Form Television, Ross Katz, Anne Carey, Ted Hope, Declan Baldwin (nomination).
Ways to Watch: HBO Max, Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes, DVD Availability.