On Monday night I was one of “tens of thousands” of people in an audience to experience a staged reading of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, an “epilogue” to the original play created by the Tectonic Theatre Project in the aftermath of Matthew Shepard’s murder at the hands of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson.
For the play, members of Tectonic went back to Laramie in 2008, much as they did in 1998, to interview the residents of Laramie and absorb and process their responses to the event to understand both why and how an event of this both–both horrifying simple and inexplicably complex–could come to pass anywhere, much less in a small Western city like Wyoming.
Unlike the first version, the epilogue featured illuminating interviews with McKinney and Henderson, both imprisoned in Virginia and serving consecutive life sentences.
It also repeatedly addressed a 20/20 segment that poo-pooed the hate crime angle of the murder and focused more on drug and theft motivations, both of which had been disproven in court when the defendents tried to put forward their “gay panic” defense (that Matthew had made sexual overtures to them and they, in their outrage and panic, killed him in response).
It was an amazing production. Annette O’Toole was one of the cast members. Amazing job. To be in that audience, for me, was an honor I almost cannot express. That the play was performed concurrently (at 115 or 150 theatres, I couldn’t quite make it out) made it the largest simultaneous theatre production in history.
I live in a world where my personal rights are debated every day by people who are unlike me.
I live in a world where the decision to get married is not mine to make.
Where my partner does not automatically share my health insurance.
Where–to make it personal–nurses could keep me out of the room in which Beau is dying.
I live in a world where, in some states, my employment is not protected and I can be terminated for loving Beau.
Where Beau and I can be on the same car insurance policy but cannot file our taxes jointly.
Where every day people around me and on television are asking each other, “Should Charlie Jensen have the same rights and privileges as me?”
Where they are really asking, “Is Charlie Jensen worth as much as me?”
Where they are asking, “Does Charlie Jensen love Beau in the same way I love my spouse?” Where they wonder if their love matters more.
What I have never told you is a small thing.
It’s a small thing that for many people would be forgotten, or laughed off, or disregarded.
That’s called “privilege.” It means you have some choice over what affects you at your core. To be without that choice, to be oppressed, is to lack privilige. Because I am white, and because I am, on the surface, many other things, I can access many kinds of privilege other people cannot.
I never told you about the phone call.
It was 2002. Matthew Shepard was dead for four years. People had flown planes into the World Trade Center and there was a lot of grief and sadness in America, and a lot of fear.
It was 2002 and all of this was going on and people were forgetting things and they were distracted by new things and then a man called me on the phone. I wasn’t home. He left a message.
The message said: Hi faggot. You’re a fucking faggot, I know you are. I’m gonna come over and rape you, you stupid faggot. How would you like that? It went on. The rest I don’t remember. The rest I don’t want to remember.
Picture me where I lived alone, hearing this. Hearing it be a thing that I wondered if it was a threat or a promise. Then, uncertainly, calling the police.
Picture me standing in my living room with the male police officer as I played him this message. Imagine my shame and embarrassment, my anger and confusion. Imagine me wondering if he thought I was overreacting. Wondering if I really was a faggot. Then, me wondering if he thought I deserved it, or if he pitied me, or if he felt nothing at all.
Place these pictures into a world in which a boy like me was kidnapped, beaten, and killed. Place them into a world where significantly larger things were happening.
The worst part wasn’t what he said to me. That was not much new. I have been called it to my face virtually my whole life. I have been shamed for it virtually my whole life. I have been pushed aside and ridiculed for it virtually my whole life.
The worst wasn’t what he said.
It was that I hesitated. I hesitated and I thought, “What if?”
And then the fear set in.