Cognitive Dissonance in Laramie, Wyoming

On the evening of Oct 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard was approached by two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, at the Fireside Bar in Laramie, Wyoming. These men enticed Matthew into McKinney’s pick-up truck, drove him to the outskirts of town, tied Matthew to a fence, pistol-whipped him and left him to die, which he graciously did on Oct 12, 1998 in a Poudre Valley Hospital bed in Fort Collins, Colorado.

I was the Lighting Designer for the Canadian premier of The Laramie Project, in Toronto in 2003. A play written by the Tectonic Theatre Company from New York City, The Laramie Project describes the events surrounding the death of Matthew Shepard, and is based on transcribed interviews of the townspeople of Laramie and the surrounding county.

It was an honour to revisit the play through the epilogue to the story: Laramie: Ten Years Later, where the members of Tectonic Theatre Company returned to Wyoming and spoke to those they had interviewed earlier to find out what changes, if any, had occurred in the ten years since the death of Matthew and the conviction of his murderers. An unsettling trend started to emerge.

It seemed that the original facts of the case, which had led investigators to conclude that what had started as a robbery later turned into a homophobic beating of a gay man, had been twisted, or outright forgotten, by many members of the community. The story by many not connected personally to the case was that the attack was nothing more than a drug trip gone bad, and was only a robbery. They said that the hate-crime label that had been attached to the case was a work of fiction and had been blown out of proportion by the media, and that the victim’s homosexuality was a peripheral matter and not important to the case.

Needless to say, the members of Tectonic were a bit stunned by this assertion, and dug deeper to find the roots of it.

It turns out that in 2004, the ABC series 20/20 had aired a report that offered “new evidence” that what was largely reported by police as a hate-crime was a robbery gone wrong, and fueled by crystal meth. They insisted that the gay bashing had been hype by the defendants to try to pin the murder on a backlash against gay advances, and that the original and only motive on the night of the murder had been robbery and drugs. In fact, they insisted, McKinney was flying high on meth and had been on a drug-rage when he beat Shepard.

Unfortunately for ABC, these assertions are patently false and based on hearsay, revised testimony, conjecture, and rumor, and fly in the face of original statements made by McKinney and other witnesses. More importantly, they directly conflict with the confessions offered during the trial. A very good refutation of the 20/20 report was written by Aaron Parsely for the NYU School of Journalism’s Recount Magazine. The 20/20 account can be easily refuted by reading the original court transcripts and police reports, which found no drugs in the system of McKinney or Henderson that night. So why did this story start to supplant the facts of the case?

Laramie, Wyoming was deluged with reporters after the death of Matthew Shepard and throughout the trial of McKinney and Henderson. The “gay-panic” defence that was offered by the defendants fed the fire of fear for homophobia in this “red-neck” town. The townspeople were in no way united in this feeling, and though Tectonic and others found those who blamed Shepard for the crime and showed open homophobia, this was not the mainstream. Those interviewed felt the need instead to promote their agreement with the “live-and-let-live” doctrine.

In Tectonic’s revisitation to Laramie, 10 years later, it was evident that many residents, especially those not involved in the original case, had begun to re-write history. They were aided by the misinformation spread by ABC, who did interview many of the same people Tectonic did, but whose voices were stunted and distorted by editors and the 30-second sound bite. The shame that the state and the city of 27000 feel seems to be at the root of this revision. The cognitive dissonance supplied by the label the “hate-state” , has made people actively forget or discount sworn testimony in court, and supplant the facts with their own sanitised myth. No-one wants to be known for a hateful and brutal crime, and Laramie had become a mecca for many who were touched by Shepard’s killing. The fence was taken down and there were complaints to the local paper, The Laramie Boomerang, about its coverage of the anniversary. Many people told Tectonic that they “…just wanted to put this behind them.” This meant, in many cases, sanitising the death of Matthew Shepard and blaming it solely on the easy mark of drugs and robbery.

After the reading of Laramie: Ten Years Later, last night, there was a live webcast of a Q and A from the Lincoln Centre where Tectonic Theatre Company performed their version of the play. A large point made at the gathering was that hate-motivated crimes against the gay community were, by no means, the exclusive property of Laramie, or Wyoming, the mid-western U.S, red-necks or young men on drug benders. No: the crimes occur everywhere. On the eve of last night’s event a gay man was targeted and beaten in Queens, New York, and currently clings to life in hospital. During the second run of The Laramie Project in Toronto back in 2004, a gay man was attacked by a 20 year old straight man in a gay bar in Hamilton and his face was cut up terribly by a broken beer bottle. Laramie, by no means, owns this problem exclusively.

It was an ugly crime, the killing of Matthew Shepard. One that many would like to forget and certainly not one that a town like Laramie would like to gain notoriety from. Like those who try to deny the Holocaust, the revision of Laramie’s history is an attempt to protect themselves from the horror and their complicity in the hate that contributed to the crime. The facts still stand, however, and those who spread rumor and conjecture must be challenged.

When asked about the international relevance that The Laramie Project had, Moises Kaufman, the director of Tectonic Theatre recounted a meeting he had with one of the participants in the play’s production in Berlin, Germany. When asked how the play was received there the man said:

“Laramie: It is just like my town.”

Comments are closed.

  • Michael Kruse

    Michael is an advanced-care paramedic in York Region, just north of Toronto, Ontario. A semi-retired theatrical lighting designer as well, he re-trained in 2005 as an EMT-PS at the University of Iowa and as an ACP at Durham College, and is currently working towards a B.Sc at the University of Toronto. Michael is a founder and the chair of the board of directors of Bad Science Watch. He is also the recipient of the first annual Barry Beyerstein Award for Skepticism. Follow Michael on twitter @anxiousmedic. Michael's musings are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer or Bad Science Watch.