The Guild Theatre in Whitehorse is currently presenting The Laramie Project, a deeply moving and disquieting piece of theatre. It’s a documentary drama about the reaction of the town of Laramie, Wyoming, to a brutal hate crime. In October 1998, two young Laramie men drove 21-year-old Mathew Shepard out into the country, where they beat him mercilessly, tied him to a cattle fence, and left him to die. They killed him because he was gay.
The play is based on interviews with townsfolk after the murder, and is presented as a series of monologues, almost any one of which would break a heart of stone. We see a picture of a town shocked, disgusted and deeply saddened by an act of brutality most of them could hardly imagine.
Interviewers from the Tectonic Theatre Project spoke with family and friends of all three young men, and as you watch the play a picture emerges of a town where people think of themselves as decent and tolerant – several times we hear with terrible irony the words “a live-and-let-live place”- but where homophobia lurks in homes, schools and churches.
One of the most revealing lines in the play comes from a woman who has known Henderson and McKinney all their lives. “What were they thinking?” she asks. It’s a haunting question. What possessed these two youngsters to commit an act so brutal, so senseless, ending another person’s life, and completely destroying their own?
This week in Nova Scotia two men of about the same age as Shepard’s killers are facing hate crimes charges for burning a cross on Shayne Howe and Michelle Lyon’s lawn. Howe is black, Lyon is white, and they have five children, two of whom are of mixed race.
According to the police, the cross-burners were known to Howe and Lyon, and there are hints that they had some personal grudge. So far there is thankfully nothing to connect the two with any organized racist group. So we return to the question, what were they thinking?
In his 2005 book, Spilling Our Blood, Douglas Janoff examined 121 cases where Canadians were murdered because they were homosexual. In 2009, xtra.ca reported that “Since 2006 the number of hate crimes investigated by the Vancouver Police Department has more than tripled. These numbers include hate crimes based on sexual orientation, religion, race and ethnicity.”
Most Canadians no doubt abhor gay-bashing just as we loathe cross-burning, just as most of the people interviewed in The Laramie Project abhorred the murder of Mathew Shepard. But do we abhor the root causes? Do we reject homophobia masquerading as religion? Do we denounce hate speech when we hear it?
The cross-burning in Nova Scotia was shocking, because we haven’t heard a lot about cross-burnings in Canada lately. Last year when Brandon Wright of London, Ontario, had his face bashed in by a man yelling “I’m going to fucking kill you, faggot,” it was just as horrifying, but less surprising. We all know that this kind of hate exists, that it’s not rare, that it’s seething under our culture’s thin veneer of tolerance, waiting to spew up at the least excuse.
What were they thinking, the perpetrators of these crimes? They were thinking that they could get away with it. They were thinking that in a world where intolerance is woven into the fabric of society, it’s OK not only to hate, but to commit violent acts of hatred. They were thinking that Laramie, Nova Scotia, London, wherever, would turn a blind eye and go on calling themselves live-and-let-live places, in the face of the most horrific evidence to the contrary.
If you live in Whitehorse, or if The Laramie Project comes to your community, don’t miss it. It’s not a pleasant evening’s entertainment, but it’s thought-provoking and unexpectedly uplifting, and the more it is seen and talked about, the harder it will be for acts of hate to go unexamined, excused, and misrepresented. What the people of Laramie had to learn was that Mathew Shepard’s death wasn’t just his own tragedy, it was Henderson’s, it was McKinney’s, it was all of theirs.
It’s all of ours.
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.