There are myriad ways in which The Laramie Project has become part of our national lexicon, but I’ll begin our semester’s discussion with a very recent example.
The mass shooting in Tuscon on January 8, 2011 claimed the lives of six and wounded thirteen others, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D, AZ District 8). In the hours and days after, we would piece together the event — the heroism of those who died shielding others, the quick actions that prevented further fatalities and those that saved the injured, the motivations of the alleged gunman, the debate over how/if his actions were connected to a rise in heated and violent political rhetoric. As the initial shock turned into sadness, mourning, and reflection, there came the unwelcome news that the Westboro Baptist Church was planning to appear at the funerals, including that of the youngest victim, 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green.
Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) is led by the Reverend Fred Phelps with a congregation made up mostly of his 13 children, grandchildren, and other extended family members. Founded in 1955, WBC came to national and international attention when they picketed Matthew Shepard’s funeral in October 1998 and continued to visit Laramie during the prosecutions of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the two men convicted of Matthew’s murder. The group’s appearance in Laramie was part of their early 1990s campaign of protests at AIDS victims funerals, which had been localized primarily in and around Kansas.
Since The Laramie Project‘s positive reception and widespread production by high schools, colleges, professional and community theaters, WBC has followed the show across the US, picketing outside performances. In recent years they have (mostly) limited their Laramie Project protests to small colleges and high school productions of the show. They have pickets scheduled at two California high schools later this month.
In 2003, they expanded their activities to include protesting at funerals for veterans who have died serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. They also select funerals of nationally prominent figures (the late Elizabeth Edwards, for example) or funerals that receive national attention (like those for the Tuscon victims) to siphon off some of the media spotlight in a continued effort to promote their extreme religious views regarding God’s violent punishments of America’s tolerance of homosexuality.
In response to WBC’s announcement, a small group of Tuscon citizens, headed by Christin Gilmer, immediately formed a Facebook group to prepare, in their words, “an Angel Action.” In recent years as WBC has garnered greater media attention, counter-protesters have come out to divert cameras and reporters away from the group’s presence at funerals and events. They usually stand in silence, with signs of support and kindness. These and the planned counter-protest in Tuscon are directly inspired by Romaine Patterson’s first “Angel Action” in Laramie. Romaine provides inspiration and details (Become_Angel) for groups wishing to replicate Angel Actions in their communities. I would also assert that the Tuscon group’s decision was facilitated by widespread knowledge of Romaine’s successful counter-protest of WBC through that event’s depiction in countless productions of the The Laramie Project.
Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how you look at it), WBC called off all their Tuscon pickets in exchange for airtime on a nationally syndicated conservative commentator’s radio program. While the nation was spared another round of images from a WBC event, the fact that the group successfully negotiated a larger platform for their views potentially legitimizes their scare tactics, illustrating their growing (if still unpopular) influence over public discourse. But those are discussions for another post.
The Tuscon Angels still attended Christina Green’s funeral, lining the road to the service, reinforcing messages of peace and civility that have gained some traction the aftermath of this tragedy. I leave you with these images from Getty (photos 1 & 2) and Associated Press (photos 3 & 4) photographers who captured the scene: