The Story

October 10, 1998
Laramie, Wyoming

Dearest Bev,

This past two days have been the most painfilled I have spent on this campus. Jim Osborn and others of the LGBTA are getting support from the community, but nothing can address the horror.

In love and trouble,
Janice

Clearly Janice, my beloved former professor at the University of Wyoming, thought I knew more than I did. Somehow, I'd missed the stories on the national news describing the vicious beating of a 21-year old UW student named Matthew Shepard.

The story which unfolded in the ensuing days, of a slight young man, battered by a pair of drunken bullies and left hanging on a fence outside of town, bloody and unconscious in the freezing night; his death a few days later, and the national outpouring of grief and rage, memorial vigils and political actions, the rising tide of cultural criticism and commentary in the press, on television, on the web, on listservs. All this riveted and consumed me from my faraway vantage in Tucson. I had grown up in Laramie, and the aftershocks of Matthew’s murder moved me deeply. I finally decided I had to go back and see for myself how this tragedy had affected my hometown.

Reverend Fred Phelps, Laramie, 1999

I drove into Laramie Easter weekend, the night before Russell Henderson's (one of Matthew's killers) murder trial was scheduled to begin. The next morning, Fred Phelps and his small band of "godhatesfags" followers would be picketing at the courthouse. I grabbed my camera and a quick cup of coffee, and headed down Grand Avenue to see them in person. As I passed the courthouse, I caught sight of their neon pink, green, and yellow signs: "Matt in Hell", "Fags die, god laughs", "Gay Rights: AIDS, Hell." Phelps followers were ringed by a dozen or more counterprotesters, dressed in white angel costumes, whose broad wings block the signs' hateful messages. Outside the ring of angels swarmed squadrons of media cameras, boom mics, clipboards, cell phones, satellite trucks. Could this really be happening in sleepy little Laramie?

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Beverly addresses Phelps, Laramie, 1999
"You don't want to talk to me, Reverend Phelps?"

Two hours later, the scene moved to the UW campus, outside of the Student Union. In sixth grade I had gone there with my friends to drink vanilla cokes and watch the anti-Vietnam protesters and pretend we were in college. How strange now to find the most extreme proponents of late-90's anti-gay hysteria trumpeting their message on this same campus, and to find this valiant band of angels—Matthew’s friends from Denver and Laramie—there to defy these unwelcome out-of-towners, not with angry words, but with a message of love. Laramie, the town where I had grown up in the 70's, closeted and unaware of the wider gay world, had suddenly stepped to the forefront of the struggle for gay rights, if only for this brief media moment. That afternoon, back at the courthouse, Russell Henderson changed his plea to guilty and was sentenced to two consecutive life terms. My journey back to Laramie had just begun.

Angels behind barricade, Laramie, 1999

In the months that followed, I spent time getting to know the angels and their supporters all over town. Shooting most of the time as a one-woman crew, with a small and unintimidating camera, I enjoyed intimate access to people and places off limits to a larger camera or crew.

I found a vibrant campus LGBTA (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Association) that constituted a queer community for University of Wyoming students and staff. I joined them for their weekly post-meeting coffee klatsch at the Village Inn, bowled with their team on league night at Laramie Lanes, grilled burgers at a weekend potluck that gathered together dozens of gay Laramie-ites in a town where I'd never known any before.

I found a community of lesbian professors, and supportive allies throughout the campus. I found Father Roger, the Newman Center priest who had organized the first vigil for Matthew when he still lay unconscious in the Ft. Collins hospital, a tireless advocate of the "essential human dignity of all people". I found that the terrible tragedy of Matthew's death which at first had left people shell-shocked, bruised, and shattered, had over time spurred a sort of community soul-searching and jump-started gay rights organizing in the state of Wyoming as nothing had done before.

Laramie Inside Out is at once the story of how Matthew's death affected Laramie's gay community, and how I came to renew my relationship with my hometown. After college, I had left Laramie in search of my own lesbian identity. Twenty years later, when Matthew Shepard was found on that fence, and the national media proclaimed Wyoming "a bad place to be gay," I returned to Laramie afraid that I would be forever alienated from this town where I had marched in the homecoming parade, played high school basketball, and fallen in love for the first time. But thanks to the active and welcoming gay community and its many allies, some of whom I have known since childhood, I felt connected to Laramie in a whole new way.

As we approach the 10th anniversary of his murder, in October 2008, Matthew's legacy continues to unfold.

—Beverly Seckinger