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What Happened in Laramie

Everything you know about Matthew Shepard is wrong

Nov 18, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 10 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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“Moment work” relieves the playwright of enormous burdens—for example, the need to write a play with a plot. As a theatrical experience, The Laramie Project begins and then it goes along for awhile; moment follows moment and then, after two intermissions, it ends. Perhaps as compensation for this dramaturgical weakness, the management of Ford’s surrounded the play’s monthlong run with festivities. There were panel discussions and a candle-light vigil, a speech by Mrs. Shepard and readings of a sequel to The Laramie Project, celebrations in the local press and a special museum exhibit about the murder in Ford’s Center for Education and Leadership, called “Not Alone: The Power of Response.”

I can hear you, as you learn of this combination of Lincoln and gay rights, asking the question: Excuse me? Why would Ford’s Theatre put on a show whose overriding purpose is political agitation? Again, no coincidence: The theater’s current management, swimming in donations from American corporations, has lately turned it into a venue for just this sort of political agitation under a program called The Lincoln Legacy Project. The purpose is to remind theatergoers of the dismal country they live in: Wallowing in the sty of hate, it is yet capable of redemption—transcendence, even!—so long as it acknowledges its own cancerous nature.

“When we began The Legacy Project,” the theater’s director, Paul Tetreault, wrote in a program note, “I knew we must include The Laramie Project as part of our exploration of intolerance and injustice in America.” In fact, intolerance and injustice are the only aspects of America Ford’s does bother to explore, leaving aside the annual Yuletide showing of A Christmas Carol

Shepard’s murder, Tetreault went on, “was a watershed moment, opening America’s eyes to the brutality and intolerance suffered by ‘the other.’ ” Even after 15 years, he said, “his story still reverberates.”

Jimenez’s book raises an uncomfortable question: Can activists like Tetreault still insist the story continues to reverberate now that we know it’s not true? And the answer is: You bet! The approved version can reverberate for as long as the activists want to ignore the factual version. No one at Ford’s or The Laramie Project would agree to comment on Jimenez’s revelations. And we can assume The Book of Matt won’t much matter to them—“too good to check” is a temptation for agitators too, even when they’re disguised as arts administrators and dramatists.  

But their stubborn silence, this studied ignorance, is beginning to seem anachronistic, and here may be the most interesting lesson that The Book of Matt has to teach us. In quarters where you’d expect angry resistance, even hostility, the reaction has been mild and matter-of-fact. 

“I think you could say I was very pleasantly surprised by the thoughtful reaction of liberals,” Jimenez told me, “and many, many gay people have had nice things to say.”

The leftwing watchdog Media Matters called Jimenez’s account of the murder “Trutherism,” associating it with the crackpot insistence that Barack Obama was born in Kenya (or was it Malaysia?), and at first there were the expected calls for boycotts. A petition circulated round the web demanding bookstore owners cancel Jimenez’s promotional appearances. 

But these failed spectacularly. Instead the American  Booksellers Association came to Jimenez’s defense, and several gay bookstores invited him to appear as a repudiation of the boycotters. 

“This is definitely a book that has a lot to say,” said Ken White, the manager of Books, Inc., in San Francisco’s Castro District, and it “is especially relevant to where we are.”

Meanwhile, Kirkus Reviews, the left-leaning tip sheet of the publishing industry, gave the book a rave notice. The gay website The Dish ran a long and respectful video interview with Jimenez. The Advocate, the country’s most widely read gay magazine, ran an article summarizing Jimenez’s reporting and asking, “What if nearly everything you thought you knew about Matthew Shepard’s murder was wrong?”

Jimenez says he was surprised at how little outrage his appearances caused. “I’ve had a lot more people, gay people, coming up to me and saying, ‘Thank you for telling the truth,’ ” he said. “ ‘We needed to hear the truth.’ ”

This reaction to the dismantling of a foundational symbol by the movement that built it is not merely surprising. The Book of Matt and the serene, even approving, reception it’s received suggest that the movement is outgrowing its own mythology. It is a sign of political maturity and cultural confidence—an acknowledgment by gay activists that, whatever really happened to Matthew Shepard that horrible night 15 years ago, they have carried the day.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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