Confessions of an Ex-Priest: Matthew Shepard and Laramie -- Their Meaning Then and Now

I must have said or felt something, but I don't recall my reaction. Matthew Shepard isn't mentioned in my journal. It's like someone tampered with my memories, dubbing over my emotions with white noise. Most likely, I shut out everything. Feeling anything would have risked too much.
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"It's hard to talk about Laramie now, to tell you what Laramie is, for us."
--Jedadiah Schultz in
The Laramie Project by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project

Oct. 6 is the anniversary of Matthew Shepard being kidnapped, brutally beaten, tied to a fence outside Laramie, Wyo., and left to die because he was gay. Fourteen years later, headlines of LGBT persons being murdered, raped, politically condemned, and bullied cycle through the news like dirt on the Kardashian's kitten. Jedadiah's words still ring true: It's hard to talk about hate crimes and how they affect us.

After Matthew was attacked in 1998, Jedadiah watched the international media invade his university and scrutinize Laramie. Just a few years older than Matthew and Jedadiah, I observed from a faraway Catholic seminary.

As morning light flooded the chapel through stained-glass rainbows, the socially conscious seminarian offered an intercession for Matthew; I must have responded, "Lord, hear our prayer." As the seminary's sluggish elevator ascended into the dormitory, a few guys gravely conversed about Laramie; I must have nodded. Another fellow watched news coverage of the vigils for Matthew while surfing AOL for updates on his condition; did I engage or retreat to the safety of my academic cell?

I must have said or felt something, but I don't recall my reaction. Matthew Shepard isn't mentioned in my journal. I remember being irate and repulsed when, earlier in 1998, James Byrd, Jr. was dragged to his death by white supremacists in Jasper, Texas, because he was black. But it's like someone tampered with my memories of Laramie, dubbing over my emotions with white noise.

Was my reaction like that of Jedadiah, who said, "It didn't seem real. It just seemed way blown out of proportion"? Like me, he was coming to know himself and struggling to accept being gay. Was it too overwhelming?

Or did I blame the victim and what I believed at the time was his originally sinful, "fallen" nature, like Laramie Project interviewee Sherry Johnson, who said, "The media is portraying Matthew Shepard as a saint. And making him a martyr. And I don't think he was. I don't think he was that pure"?

Could I have been as callous as the play's Murdock Cooper, who said, "Some people are saying he made a pass at them ... [I]t was partially Matthew Shepard's fault and partially the guys who did it ... you know maybe it's fifty-fifty"? Back then, I was drinking the Catholic "love the sinner, hate the sin" Kool-Aid. I blamed myself for being sexually abused in my youth, believing it my fault and my punishment because I was gay, because physically some of it felt good. In this mindset, I could have blamed Matthew.

Most likely, I shut out everything. Feeling anything would have risked too much: my vocation, my celibacy, my hope that priesthood would save me from my gayness, and my belief that annihilating my sexuality would keep the PTSD of sexual abuse at bay. If I reacted to Matthew Shepard, seminarians would sniff the gay compassion on me. They'd know. They'd hit on me; I'd lose control, get AIDS, be kicked out of the church, die alone, and go to hell. So was my mindset in 1998.

Fourteen years later -- eight removed from priesthood and the homophobic distortions in which the church formed me -- I've pulled my clerical collar out of storage. I'm playing Father Roger Schmit, Jedadiah, and a handful of others in The Laramie Project.

The ensemble sits onstage throughout the production. As I await my cue, trying to enter Father Roger's mindset, my mind wanders. Newark Archbishop John Myers recently issued a "pastoral letter" in which he told pro-marriage-equality Catholics not to receive communion. Minnesota's bishops sent a letter to the state's Catholics urging donations for media ads supporting a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages. What would Father Roger, who in the play is hellbent on combating violence against LGBT persons, make of the church's charge against LGBT civil rights? Would he call the church's actions "the seed of violence"? Lost in thought, I nearly miss my entrance.

After my scene, I return to my seat. A few steps away, the actor portraying the Baptist minister states, "I hope that as Matthew Shepard as he was tied to that fence ... that before he slipped into a coma he had a chance to reflect on his lifestyle." An old, familiar feeling returns: nothing.

If I listen to the horror of what was done to Matthew and the hatred expressed by some interviewees, I'll be swallowed by my anger, sadness, and frustration. I'll lose touch with my next character's motivation and miss my cue. The emotional fog of my seminary days returns. I hear the reports of Matthew's murder, but I can't allow myself to be affected.

After the show, as I surf through the latest cycle of anti-LGBT headlines, I wonder whether I'm that different offstage. Have I become desensitized?

Near the end of The Laramie Project, Jedadiah admits, "I didn't for the longest time let myself become personally involved in the Matthew Shepard thing. It didn't seem real ... Matthew Shepard was just a name instead of an individual."

Fourteen years after Matthew Shepard's murder, this is what Laramie means to me: no more complacency. No more distance. No more feeling nothing.

Laramie means confronting the seeds of violence, protesting at the Mormon temple, Catholic cathedral, and other institutions that support anti-LGBT legislation. It means talking to family and friends about LGBT rights and experiences, even when I might be rejected. When someone at the gym refers to my legal spouse as "wife" or "partner," it means kindly saying "husband." It means reposting articles about South African lesbians being subjected to "corrective rape" and four bullied Pennsylvania teenagers committing suicide within one week. It means being one of two gay actors in a conservative town's production of The Laramie Project.

Laramie means writing and telling my story, because Matthew and countless others were robbed of their voices. Their stories are my story. I won't forget. I won't stop feeling. I won't be silent.

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