Laramie’s absent protagonist

After Tuesday’s class, Jacob reminded me that I have not yet discussed specific North Carolina connections to Matthew Shepard. In an article, “The Thrill of Living Dangerously,” written for the March 1999 issue of Out magazine, the author briefly discusses Matthew’s time in North Carolina, time spent working at a video store and seeing a therapist for treatment of an eating disorder. The larger concern of the Out story is how Matthew’s struggles with depression, addiction, and risky sexual behavior have been absented from the larger national discussion about his death. This absence, while frustrating for someone who wants the “whole” picture, is not surprising considering the way details about the sexuality and/or sexual activity of hate crime victims find their way into public narratives about the crime in ways that lessen the brutality or homophobic origins of the violence. Victims of rape and sex workers who report abuse or violence by clients also suffer this kind of sexualization, a legal strategy and cultural narrative that asserts a victim’s behavior is directly related to their culpability for crimes perpetrated against them. We see a bit of this narrative emerge when Aaron McKinney employs a “gay panic” defense at his trial but again in the 20/20 “documentary” we will watch on February 8 when an entire backstory of drug addiction and risky sex is offered as mitigating factors in the circumstances of Matthew’s death.

In her memoir, The World Was Watching: Living in the Light of Matthew Shepard, Romaine Patterson sheds some light upon the darker sides of Matthew’s life, his alienation from generous but largely absent parents (he attended a boarding high school in Switzerland when his father’s job as an oil safety engineer took the rest of the family to Saudi Arabia). His trauma after being raped and robbed while on a senior class trip in Morocco. If anyone in the cast/crew wants to read Romaine’s book, I have the library’s copy.

But the passing reference in Out was the only link between Matthew and North Carolina until documentary filmmaker and native North Carolinian Tim Kirkman reviewed old  footage for his Emmy nominated film Dear Jesse. Dear Jesse is a first-person “letter” to North Carolina’s powerful US Senator Jesse Helms, whose thirty-year Senate career was marked by his position as one of the primary architects of and engines that drove the Culture Wars of the late 1980s and 1990s.  Helms’ insistence that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality and that the entire AIDS epidemic could be attributed to gay men even as scientific studies refuted that claim, was just one of his most lasting legacies as a public figure. Helms’ cause and rhetorical strategy continues, one recent example being the remarks made on January 11, 2011 by NC Representative Larry Brown who argued that government subsidies for HIV and AIDS treatment and drugs should be given to those who contract the disease “through no fault of their own” (such as children born with HIV) but that funding should not be provided for those “living perverted lifestyles.”

Dear Jesse was released in the summer of 1998, a few months before Matthew’s murder. This clip, posted to YouTube in 2009 by blogger Joshalot, is of one of Kirkman’s 1996 man-on-the-street interviews at Catawba Collect (Salisbury, NC) with a then unknown Matthew Shepard standing with his self-identified boyfriend. I have only been able to find a secondary source that touches briefly on the origin of YouTube post. What I can say is that this clip is not from the original release of Dear Jesse. It is a section of footage that Kirkman originally cut but then found and included as an epilogue to the version of Dear Jesse that ran as part of the “Reel Life” documentary series for Cinemax and was eventually released on DVD in 2006. As you will hear from his voiceover, in this epilogue Kirkman recontextualizes what was once a random interview with two college students into a realization that this is perhaps the only video footage of Matthew Shepard outside of that taken by his family and friends, one way the larger public might see Matthew in life as a counter balance to how we have been forced to imagine him (only) in death.

What is also interesting to note is that in this clip Matthew seems politically aware about LGBT causes. This is a slightly different portrait of his activism from the one the play implies: that his political consciousness about LGBT issues emerged at the same time as he arrived in Laramie for school. It seems important to remember that while Matthew was a new student at the University of Wyoming, he was actually 21 years old (just about 1 month shy of his 22 birthday) and had taken classes at two other colleges (Catawba College and Casper College) before 1998.

2 thoughts on “Laramie’s absent protagonist

  1. The utube clip is pretty amazing. Makes me wonder if there is a way to use it in the show. 1st we would need to question it’s purpose. It would seem that his ties to this place, our place, in those years of his life could help rbi g it home for the audience. Again, an excellent post Jules.

  2. The footage is amazing – to see him so soon before he died and to get a sense of him more as an individual person, rather than a symbol for hate crimes and LGBT issues. I also had no idea about the Jesse Helms or Larry Brown comments. Very disturbing.
    Wonderful post Jules! Thanks especially for the clip. I am dramaturgy’s #1 fan now!

Leave a Reply