LA CROSSE, Wis. (WXOW) – October 12 marks a dark and somber day in American history. It is the day a hateful act resulted in the untimely death of 21-year-old Wyoming native Matthew Shepard.
Six days prior to his death, Shepard was robbed, pistol whipped and tied to a fence by two men just outside of Laramie, Wyoming. The brutal beating brought on by the two men was due to their dislike of Shepard because he was gay.
The outpouring of love and support Shepard and his family received brought his case from Wyoming to Capitol Hill. In 2009, President Barack Obama enacted the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This federal law was an expansion of the 1969 United States federal hate-crime law, and it toughened penalties on crimes motivated by a person’s gender, gender identity, disability or sexual orientation.
While Shepard was not the first person from the community to fall victim to a hate crime, his death did play a significant role in bringing this issue to the limelight. However, Will Van Roosenbeek, the director of the Pride Center at UW-La Crosse, argues that not enough progress has been made for the LGBTQ community. “If you would have said this is where we would be in 2018, I wouldn’t have believed you because I never would believe same-sex marriage would have been legal. I wouldn’t believe that people could openly serve in the military including trans people. But I also would not believe that we were in this place of great ignorance and hate,” said Van Roosenbeek.
Conversations are still needed to address the issue of hate crimes against people due to their sexual orientation. Part of the that ongoing conversation comes through platforms like the arts. Coinciding with the 20 year anniversary of Shepard’s death is the opening of UW-La Crosse’s production of The Laramie Project, a play depicting the way dozens of people responded to Shepard’s hate crime. “One of the things that strikes me about The Laramie Project as a piece and as a play is the great care, respect and honor that it pays to the people whose voices are heard in this play regardless of what side of the issue they fall on or what they believe in,” remarked UW-La Crosse faculty member and director of The Laramie Project Greg Parmeter.
Actor Shane Flaningam is performing in The Laramie Project for the second time. After his first crack at the show in high school, he expressed that he has not only grown as an actor, but as an activist. “This is an entire different process and an entire different thing going on. I feel so great about it because it just shows me that there is so much more work to be done,” said Flaningam.
By communication through performance, the actors in the production hope to break down barriers so people on both sides of the aisle can talk and establish some middle ground. “This is something that needs to be talked about and it is a beautiful platform to do it. We have to be open to people in order to talk about those things because if we are silent, the hate stays,” said actor Leah Williams.
The Laramie Project runs from October 12 – 21 at UW-La Crosse’s Center for the Arts. Tickets are available online or by calling the box office at (608) 785-8522. In-person box office sales can be made Monday through Friday from 1 pm to 4 pm and one hour prior to each performance.
The UW-La Crosse Theatre Department will also be producing a staged reading of The Laramie Project epilogue entitled The Laramie Project: Ten Year Later on Tuesday, October 16. There will be a post-show discussion immediately following the staged reading with members of the cast and UW-La Crosse’s Pride Center. This event is free and open to the public.