October 8, 2004 -- Laramie Inside Out is the first film to accurately portray how this city reacted to the murder of Matthew Shepard and the huge media uproar that followed. As a Laramie resident, I've been disappointed in the provincial viewpoints inherent in "The Laramie Project" and other film and plays based on the events. Like the news reports, most books, plays and films focused too much on hate crime legislation (or the lack of it), rather than the actual murder and how it affected both the city and the local gay community.
To date, I've only seen two accounts of the Shepard affair that accurately portrayed Laramie, Beth Loffreda's book, "Losing Matt Shepard" and Beverly Seckinger's film, Laramie Inside Out. In both cases, these two women had an advantage over others who have told this story. They both know all about Laramie. Loffreda lives in Laramie, and Seckinger grew up in Laramie. No amount of research by New Yorkers or Californians could, or did give them that level of insight into the unique character of Laramie.
So if you can see only one film about this tragic event, see Laramie Inside Out. Seckinger, a lesbian, shows an uncanny empathy for both Wyoming's gay community, as well as for the city and state. This gave her unprecedented access to a wide cross-section of Wyoming's gay community. You see interesting people that you don't see in other films. For instance, there's a tough gun-toting lesbian who likes to hang out at places like the rough Buckhorn Bar in Laramie, the local rifle range, and local fishing spots. She comments that when guys hit on her she tells them that she's gay. Sometimes they reply that if she won't go out on a date, "how about going fishing?" This comment says more about Laramie's laid back attitude toward sexual orientation.
As one gay activist said in the movie. Reforming attitudes towards gays is something that happens gradually, one person at a time. One memorable scene in the film shows a gay picnic held near Laramie. The picnic has a definite Wyoming look to it. People come to the picnic from long distances. It is a way for Wyoming gays to form a community in a sparsely populated state. One gay at the picnic from a small city in Wyoming said he found out about the Laramie gay organization (now called Spectrum) by reading a newspaper article about the Matthew Shepard murder. News coverage, and the Internet are helping gays connect in Wyoming.
Seckinger's film is also intensely personal. We see home movies of her childhood. She is shown dressed up in a cowgirl outfit with six-shooters like Annie Oakley. She dreamed of chasing off the bad guys with her guns blazing. We also see her adolescent years in Laramie where she carried a deep secret. The pain of her years in the closet is carried over into another episode in the film where we see an older Laramie woman who finally decides to come out of the closet after Matthew Shepard is killed. Others in the film talk openly of their fear of rejection when they come out of the closet. One man tells of his relief when his family accepted him when he made his announcement.
The film gives the impression that coming out of the closet is one way that gays can lead the fight for their own acceptance. So long as they remain in the closet others can live in denial about them. When they come out of the closet, those people have to confront their own perceptions and feelings. This process in Laramie was definitely kick-started by the Shepard murder. Laramie had been a sleepy little town, at least in its attitude toward gays. It was something people thought little about and talked even less about. That all changed when Shepard was murdered. People were forced to both think and talk about their attitudes toward gays. It wasn't superficial thought, or talk, either. This film shows that process better than any other film has.
Copyright 2004 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
It is within this arena that Beverly Seckinger's film, Laramie Inside Out, weaves an alternative discourse about her hometown of Laramie. This personal documentary is a poignant and powerful exploration of what may appear to some to be two oppositional sides of one community. These two, overarching portraits are represented throughout by two basic filmic "characters"; the first is the stereotypical Laramie of guns, cowboys and Western mythology, and the second, a queer community working to educate and to stake its own claim as equal and vital citizens in a town that has experienced a watershed moment of crisis.
While a documentary film probing only the understandable fear and pain of the consequences of murder would perhaps have been the tendency of some filmmakers, Seckinger chooses instead to investigate the humanity and quest for healing that occurred over months of filming in Laramie. This generally conservative, insular, small town of the American Heartland and its own lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered members and supporters, are deftly and respectfully represented in a mutual journey through the aftermath of Matthew Shepard's death and the subsequent murder trial. What emerges is a portrait of tolerance, support and overall acceptance of a variety of people who have chosen to make their homes in the stark beauty of Wyoming.
This "coming of age" story of a town rich in history is intertwined with the filmmaker's own past as a closeted lesbian growing up in Laramie. The discourse of memory is delicately woven into the representation of struggle in moments both humorous and heartrending. The realization of Seckinger's own emerging, teenage sexual identity is offered in snippets of archival family photographs and film presenting a young girl bucking traditional stereotypes by toting toy guns and mimicking her heroine, Calamity Jane; "There were signs early on I might be a Wyoming kind of gal."
These lighter moments are in contrast to more profound sequences delving into the horror of Matthew's kidnapping, beating and ultimate death. The filmmaker's voice guides us through the media coverage, events and locations of that night, ultimately allowing the camera to rest on the very fence that Matthew was lashed to. It is interesting to note that the person who ultimately found his mangled body initially thought they had come across some kind of strange scarecrow out on the Wyoming plains. The Worldbook dictionary defines a scarecrow as;
1. a figure dressed in old clothes, set in a field to frighten birds away from crops.
2. (Figurative.) anything that fools people into being frightened.
The descriptive example given by this same reference text to further flesh out the scarecrow definition is this; "The farmer decided to build a scarecrow so terrifying it would scare the hateful crows to death when they got a good look at it."
This historical and visual representation might allow the viewer to better recognize and analyze the ultimate reference such a display of the human body, and more specifically the bloodied and dying form of a young, gay man, presents. Laramie, while a college town, is also steeped in the history of an agricultural lifestyle, where there would be no mistaking the posing of his body in such a manner. It was a symbol and a warning — you are not wanted here.
This imagined scarecrow figure, and the human being represented, begins the quest that Laramie Inside Out probes and ultimately, becomes a part of. Many faces of homosexuality and sexual identity are represented by a wide variety of people and opinions, delicately interwoven to portray prejudice, love, hate, misunderstanding and courage anchored in a specific historic time and place.
These engaging, personal and intimate journeys are represented by a tapestry of voices, including those of Matthew's close friends, University of Wyoming students who dress as silent angels in response to the event and to the vitriolic rhetoric of Fred Phelps and his followers who claim that Matthew and other homosexuals are an abomination to God. We are also introduced to a Laramie mother who retroactively supports her own gay son by educating and supporting the local gay community, a gun-toting lesbian who does not hide but instead openly claims her lifestyle in what could be the perilous culture of game hunters, and the Laramie priest who reminds his parishioners that Jesus excluded no one, but instead was a savior of tolerance and love.
It is perhaps, though, the voice of the filmmaker that is the strongest and most compelling, for she offers the benefit of hindsight, and observations now somewhat distanced from the day to day culture of Wyoming. The benefit of time and space allows her to re-purpose the role Laramie plays in her own life. It additionally gives the audience privileged entry into a community whose dirty laundry was aired publicly and who responded, for the most part, with positive social action.
The backbone of the film is Seckinger's coming to terms with her own history as a lesbian who is drawn to the specifics of her closeted past, her role as a media producer and consumer, her relationships with her parents after she came out, and the future of the town she now sees as a three-dimensional, imperfect, yet valid site of inquiry.
Laramie Inside Out is presented with a steady hand, allowing both gay and straight audiences easy entry into its text. The editorial pacing is tight, allowing the magnitude of Matthew Shepard's death to be tempered with humor, self-deprecation, and an occasionally sarcastic, self-reflexive view of media coverage. The camera work, interviews and sound design were all carried out by Seckinger, who, as a member of the larger queer community and past resident of Wyoming, is allowed to explore the still raw wounds of discrimination in a unique and powerful way. Her journey, in search of the particulars of identity, to the site of a national trauma is engaging, at times disturbing, but ultimately uplifting in its presentation of healing and growth. Adlai Stevenson once said, "This sense of man's balanced greatness and fallibility in the search for truth has made ours a profoundly questing civilization." Once again, the American quest takes us West, to the boundaries of community and culture, the places of self-definition.
The gay rights movement seeks to educate society about gay issues, and Laramie Inside Out, now distributed by New Day Films, takes its place as a powerful educational tool for anyone interested in the life and death of Matthew Shepard and the emergence of a city that has experienced profound shame, and emerged a more unified and tolerant community.
Journal of Film and Video Vol 57, nos. 1-2, Sp/Summer 2005
Shortly after midnight on October 7, 1998, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard met Aaron James McKinney and Russell Arthur Henderson in a bar. After he confided to them that he was gay, they deceived him into leaving with them in their car. He was robbed, severely beaten, tied to a fence and left to die. Shepard was discovered 18 hours later, alive and unconscious. Shepard suffered from a fracture from the back of his head to the front of his right ear. He also had catastrophic brain stem damage, which affected his body's ability to regulate heartbeat, body temperature, and other vital signs. There were also about a dozen small lacerations around his head, face and neck. His injuries were deemed too severe for doctors to operate. Shepard never regained consciousness and remained on full life support. He died at 12:53 a.m. on October 12 at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado.
The blood on Shepard's face had been partly washed away by tears, indicating that he had been conscious for some time after the beating. He had been pistol-whipped 18 times with a .357-caliber revolver. Police arrested McKinney and Henderson shortly thereafter, finding the bloody gun as well as the victim's shoes and credit card in their truck. The two murderers had attempted to get alibis from their girlfriends. After a long and hotly debated trial both were found guilty and are currently serving life-sentences in prison.
Laramie Inside Out operates on two levels - a personal journey for Beverly Seckinger and a national journey for any viewer familiar with the Shepard murder. There have been only two accounts of the Shepard murder that accurately portray Laramie, Beth Loffreda's book, Losing Matt Shepard and Beverly Seckinger's film, Laramie Inside Out. In both cases, these two women have an advantage over others who have told this story. They both know all about Laramie. Loffreda lives in Laramie, and Seckinger grew up in Laramie. No amount of research by New Yorkers or Californians could, or did, give them that level of insight into the unique character of the town.
This film has won awards including the Best of Arizona Award, from the Arizona International Film Festival. Seckinger is an independent producer based in Tucson, and is also an associate professor at the University of Arizona where she teaches courses in video production, documentary history and criticism, and gay studies. She is a founding member of the university's Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies. Since 1993 she has served as director of the Lesbian Looks Film and Video Series.