When I was 12 years old, I took a trip out West, traveling from my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, to climb 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado and catch some of what was left of the Wild West. Our search for authentic cowboys and ranchers took us to Cheyenne, Wyo., and their famous Frontier Days. We were met with exactly what we were looking for: bucking broncos, rodeo clowns and evening entertainment by Gordon Lightfoot. It was not such a foreign site to me, having ridden horses for most of my life and mucked out stalls, etc. (I was raised partially on a horse farm), so Frontier Days was fun, certainly, and entertaining (though the violence of a rodeo was not really my thing), but I had the overwhelming feeling of being an outsider. This was not my scene. Cornfields and baseball and bowling sat more in my comfort zone. So of course, in Wyoming, an outsider I was.
A little over 15 years later, I received a call from Moisés Kaufman. We had just closed a year-and-a-half run of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde about three weeks earlier, and the members of Tectonic Theater Project had spent a lot of time in the previous eight or nine months auditioning plays (and ideas for plays) that might become the next Tectonic event. Nothing had seemed right. A few of us were clamoring for a farce, after 500-plus performances of the demise of our poor, beloved, complicated Oscar. I remember Feydeau was definitely in play. However, when Moisés called that day in early October 1998 and said he had an idea of something he wanted to explore, his voice immediately bore in me the disappointment that we would not be getting to that farce for quite a while.
On receiving that call from Moisés, I had not heard about what had happened to Matthew Shepard. I've never been partial to having the news blaring on the TV (like Matthew apparently was), and I had not yet read the paper. So Moisés told me a little bit about it, said he wanted to set up a meeting with everyone, and told me I should pay more attention to the news. So I headed to Mission Café, around the corner from my apartment on 2nd Avenue (sadly, it's no longer there), ordered a bagel and coffee, and sat down to read about what was happening in Wyoming. I never did get to eat that bagel.
The Times had a story on the front page about the savage beating that Matthew Shepard had taken, and about how he was fighting for his life in a hospital in Fort Collins, Colo., and how he'd been left in the elements for 16 hours before he was miraculously found by a mountain biker. It was harrowing. The comments that people were making in the wake of the event, or at least those that were being reported, were inflammatory and combative. Clearly this event, and/or its aftermath, had hit a nerve. I flipped through the paper to continue reading the interior copy, arriving on the page where the story continued, and inset into the article about Matthew Shepard was a small piece about my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio.
Apparently someone on the city council or some other local political entity had recently introduced an anti-hate-crimes statute. Not a hate-crimes statute, but an anti-hate-crimes statute, specifically stating that it would be unfair to give "special rights" to LGBT people. This was somewhat the flavor of the time, a backlash to some modest gains in civil rights and slightly more exposure for gay men on television, which had raised the hackles of people who were "against homosexuality." Of course, this flash of conservatism in Cincinnati was not surprising to me, but it did bring back a memory that I had all but buried years before.
In 1983, all of my aspirations lay in becoming a shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds. I was in middle school and playing for the school baseball team, and we were practicing, gearing up for the start of the season. We were shagging fly balls and were therefore out of earshot of the coach, who was some ways off, with a fungo and a bucket of baseballs. I'm not sure where it started or how we got there, but I remember that by the middle of practice, if a player fell while trying to catch a fly ball, he would be shouted down by the other players with, "AH HAAAA! You have AIDS!" I remember joining in this display as a willing if ignorant participant. The idea, I guess, was that if you fell, you were effeminate, and if you were effeminate, you were gay, and in the early days of AIDS, to an ignorant kid on a ball field in 1983, if you were gay, you were going to get AIDS or had AIDS already, or something. Then of course we began to fall on purpose, so as to be able to repeat this newfound ritual. Read into that what you will.
It is a haunting memory, one that shames me to this day, having lost loved ones to AIDS in later years, and having friends still living with the disease, and having had my mind opened to what love is, what sexuality is, how precious these feelings are to life. But I had to ask myself: How close was I to being Aaron McKinney? Probably not very. How close was I to being Russell Henderson? Maybe a little too close for my liking. I had had access to a lens that the perpetrators could have been looking though, a way of looking at the world that was unforgiving of difference in general, and relentlessly violent toward the LGBT community. So I don't know that my first reaction was, "How could this happen?" There was something eerily and uncomfortably familiar with what I was reading about in the paper that day.
By this time in my life, I had moved to New York City, surrounded myself with very like-minded friends, and found my (leftish) politically correct niche. What changed my attitude toward LGBT people is perhaps a subject for another blog post. It was a monumental shift in awareness and attitude that happened very quickly, and not very long after the baseball-field fiasco. Yet having this memory recalled, being confronted in the wake of what happened to Matthew Shepard with my own homophobia from years past, has always shaped my approach to The Laramie Project. It became very important to me to find out how the people of Laramie were reacting to the crime committed in their midst, and whether we as a nation would dismiss these two murderers as monsters and therefore inhuman, or if we would accept their acts as a part of our own humanity, even at its most violent and shameful.
By the way, we fly-ball shaggers were not caught, or at least not punished. There was no direct or immediate price paid for such abhorrent behavior. If anything, the culture we were growing up in supported our outward show of hostility and ignorance, however difficult that may be to admit to each other.
A new production of The Laramie Project and its sequel, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, is running at Brooklyn Academy of Music through Feb. 24. For more information, or to purchase tickets, see BAM's website here.