Matthew Shepard’s mother visits Santa Cruz in support of a new book that details her journey to becoming an activist
It’s been 11 years since a brutal hate crime left a 21-year-old gay college student dead and focused the nation’s attention on little town in Wyoming. On Oct. 12, 1998, Matthew Shepard died, five days after searchers found him beaten, robbed and bound to a fence—left to freeze in the frigid, Laramie, Wyo., air. Back then it was hard to view the murder as anything less than a tragic tale of oppression—an example of a dark and viciously intolerant side to America. But today, more than a decade later, glimmers of hope sparkle among the ruins of an otherwise morbid scene. Shepard’s life became more recognized that day, and in his death the gay rights community found a common catalyst for action.
On Oct. 23, Shepard’s mother, Judy Shepard, will bring that action to Bookshop Santa Cruz, where she will read from and sign copies of her new book, “The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed,” which details her struggle to grapple with the death of a loved one and her decision to become an activist. Prior to the Bookshop event, Pisces Moon Productions will hold a wine and cheese reception for Shepard at the Veterans Hall, where she will speak about her journey.
“Matthew Shepard is a symbol not just of hate crime, but of the prevalence of homophobia in our society,” says Susan Myer Silton, artistic director of Pisces Moon, which staged both “The Laramie Project,” as well as “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later.”
“The Laramie Project,” written shortly after Shepard’s death, documented Laramie’s reaction to Shepard’s slaying. The production achieved great success, playing throughout the U.S. and overseas, bringing attention to the subject of homophobia and drawing both support and criticism.
Pisces Moon, along with a select 100 theaters from across the nation and around the world, debuted an epilogue to “The Laramie Project” on Oct. 12. “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later” features re-interviews with individuals contacted for the first production, as well as with Shepard’s convicted killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson.
“It’s very interesting to see what remorse means to both of these people,” Silton says of the killers’ interviews. “Not just one young man was killed that day; really three were. They are just not going to live a full life in any form.”
Silton says that perhaps the most fascinating theme she noticed among those re-interviewed for “10 Years Later,” was the tendency toward what she called a “reconstruction of history.” The community “rewrote it and said, ‘No, it really wasn’t a hate crime. It was a robbery gone bad.’”
“We tend to stop paying attention to things that disturb us,” Silton continues. “I think that (‘10 Years Later’) shows that to be true. We will practice denial or we will reconstruct something to make it more comfortable to digest.”
Susan McCloskey, events coordinator at Bookshop Santa Cruz, says that Shepard’s visit—which she has been working on scheduling for more than a year—is the “highest honor.”
“It’s our dream event,” McCloskey says. “Bookshop has always considered itself the heart of the community and a place where change and what’s happening in the world can be examined. That’s what books are. They are a place where we get to talk and explore and examine.”
McCloskey says that books can open a dialogue and help people talk about difficult subjects. She feels that even in an open place like Santa Cruz, there are still pockets of “hate and uncomfortableness.” Those feelings have to be acknowledged, she says, or else they will not be confronted.
Silton agrees, saying that the revisionist histories explored in “10 Years Later” demonstrate “how prevalent homophobia is in our society. In so many ways people don’t even recognize it in themselves.”
Shepard’s visit not only closely follows the anniversary of her son’s death, it also comes as Congress is on the brink of passing a legislative bill bearing Matthew’s name, which would expand the definition of federal hate crimes to cover sexual orientation. Heretofore, federal hate crimes have been defined as those motivated by a victim’s race, color, religion or national origin.
Both Silton and McCloskey agree that while this bill is a step in the right direction, it is also an indication of how slow progress can be.
“Gay issues are really civil rights issues,” Silton says. “We are denying basic civil rights to a population in our country and we are not recognizing that is what we are doing.”
“There is absolutely no doubt that there is a gap between what looks like acceptance and actual equal rights,” McCloskey says.
Neither Silton nor McCloskey have heard that anti-gay protests will be held at either event, but say that it is impossible to rule out. “That’s the truth of public gatherings around queer issues,” McCloskey says.
Silton hopes the events will give those in attendance a window into the mind of a woman who lost her son in a senseless act of violence, spur action and perhaps even change some minds.
“That’s really what my hope is,” Silton says. “Even if one person who is listening—even if one person changes—that reverberates across their world. They can change other people. If just one person changes, then it’s worth it. It’s worth it for all of us.”
The event takes place at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 23 at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave. Santa Cruz, 423-0900.