When will we learn?

Last week in theatre class, I watched “The Laramie Project.” It is a film based on the play of the same name by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project.
“The Laramie Project” is a docudrama; it is a the dramatized version of a collection of interviews that members of the Tectonic Theatre Project actually conducted with people in the town of Laramie, Wyo., shortly after the brutal beating of Matthew Shepard. For those not familiar with the story, Matthew Shepard was a college student who was savagely beaten, tied to a fence and left to die in the outskirts of Laramie on the night of Oct. 6, 1998. He was found almost a day later and died from severe head injuries within a week. All of this because Matthew Shepard was gay.

Ten years after the crime, members of the Tectonic Theatre Project went back to Laramie to see how the community had grown, what lessons had been learned in the 10 years since Matthew’s death. They compiled that set of interviews into a second play that premiered last October: “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.” The lessons to be learned from Matthew Shepard’s death are not ones meant only for Laramie, however; they are lessons that we all need to learn.

Matthew Shepard’s two murderers were not tried for hate crimes, because at the time of Matthew Shepard’s death, hate crime legislation in Wyoming did not include crimes motivated by sexual orientation. Fortunately, just a few weeks after the premiere of “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later,” The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act expanded federal hate crime legislation to include “crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.” It seems then that progress has been made. We also see progress in terms of human rights for gay Americans in laws regarding marriages, domestic partnerships and civil unions. Fourteen states formally recognize gay couples in one of those ways now, 14 more than in 1998.

It is great to see that our laws have slowly been changing in order to be make “liberty and justice for all” a reality in this country, yet recent events leave me disheartened with how much the attitudes of hate and discrimination linger in this country. Last Wednesday, a Mississippi public school responded to the desire of one of its students to bring her girlfriend to the senior prom by canceling the prom all together. Reports also surfaced last week of two young children who have been asked to leave their Catholic school because their parents are both women. In November of 2008, California voters approved Proposition 8, taking away the right of gay couples to marry after that right had been affirmed by the courts earlier in 2008.

I see these reports and I wonder when we will learn our lesson. It is this discrimination, this cold-hearted denial of rights that leads to the hatred that killed Matthew Shepard. Matthew Shepard’s murderers didn’t leave their homes that October night looking to kill someone; they snapped. They snapped in response to years of social conditioning that told them that homosexuality was wrong and that homosexuals were bad.

By canceling prom, by kicking children out of school and by denying gay couples their basic rights, we are continuing to send the message that discrimination is okay. That message scatters seeds of hatred, seeds that lead to tragedies like the one that occurred on Oct. 6, 1998. Is that the message we want to send our nation’s children?


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