Age of the Twink: Remembering Matthew Shepard 21 years later

My high school selected The Laramie Project for its fall production during my senior year. This was a shock to me, knowing my town and the conservative suburbs that surrounded the school. Moisés Kaufman’s play, about the aftermath of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in his small Wyoming town, seemed like a brave choice on the part of a school that systematically ignored its LGBTQ+ population during the time I attended.

As one of the few openly gay students in my school, I obviously knew about Matthew Shepard. He was a representation of my worst fears. A gay student at the University of Wyoming, Shepard was robbed, tortured, pistol-whipped, tied to a fence in near-freezing temperature, and left for dead by a group of heterosexual men. I was one year old at the time it happened, but now, during October, the 21st anniversary of his death, I think about Matthew Shepard more than I ought to.

The portrait they displayed around school, in classrooms, and on the stage showed Shepard as he’d come to be permanently remembered: posed in front of a black-and-white backdrop, wearing a sweater with his head slightly cocked, his lips a straight line, his blonde hair feathered to the side of his forehead, his Adam’s apple emphasized. He was handsome and so very young.

-Advertisement-

Needless to say, there was backlash; at one point our principal had to release a statement because too many parents were telephoning the front office to complain about the play’s “agenda.” Administration held a schoolwide assembly to watch snippets of the play before opening night. Afterward, I heard groups of boys snickering to one another about the content, about the gay boy who was killed.

In growing up gay—and, as I am finding, in living every day as a gay man—violence pervades everything. It’s become such a phenomenon in my life that I started to call it my own “gay anxiety.” It’s the odd panic I feel rush to my head when groups of men pass me on the sidewalk, or cross the street near me, or ride the subway alongside me. It’s ingrained in me to be afraid of any sexual activity because just one generation ago the threat of AIDS lurked behind every sexual encounter. It’s knowing that I can’t flirt with just any attractive man without the fear that underneath his beauty he may be so disgusted by gay men that he would beat me senseless. It’s a worry that most women have every day and at every moment, and, much like my female counterparts, it’s a worry that I can’t seem to shake off.

When coming to college, I have continued to be stunned by those who seem to perceive microaggressions, those subtle yet offensive remarks against marginalized communities, as the worst thing to happen to them. Obviously microaggressions are a manifestation of patriarchy not to be disregarded, but, in my life—having had boys chew their food and throw it at me, shove me into lockers, and grab my ass as some sick prank—I welcomed microaggressions as an alternative. In high school, I approached each day hoping microaggressions would be all I’d have to deal with.

During the time of the Laramie Project controversy, our school’s Gay-Straight Alliance—suffice to say, it was not the most popular club—held a “day of silence” in cooperation with the GLSEN demonstration, where students were encouraged not to open their mouths in remembrance of those lost to hate crimes. It served as a great opportunity for straight people to showcase their activism. I, on the other hand—fearing I’d give classmates another reason to bully me for my sexuality—knew better than to be silent.

In calculus class, I always sat in the corner and kept to myself. By this time, I hadn’t even fully come out but was somehow still the “token gay” of the class. This happens a lot while in the closet: Straight people love assuming your sexuality and telling you all about it. But on this “day of silence,” I recall the two boys who sat in front of me turning around and, as I knew to be a warning sign, chuckling with each other. One said to me, “I take it you’re not speaking today?”

I chose to act stupid. “Why wouldn’t I?”

They were surprised but satisfied. One of them said something like, “Ah, he’s talking on the ‘day of silence!’ Disappointing all of those who died before him.”

I pretended to laugh along. But, thinking back, there must be a reason I still remember this interaction. Maybe it was guilt. Maybe they were right: I was letting down the brotherhood of gay men before me. Maybe it was because I could see myself in the pictures on the advertisements for The Laramie Project around school: the portrait of Matthew Shepard, his naïve boyishness, his sad smile, his youthful eyes. I saw how easily I could be him—I could have that same fate, on a random day, with random men, in a random act of violence.

Even now, far from my hometown and living in Boston, that portrait of Matthew Shepard still haunts me. I think it lingers in the collective unconscious of all the generations of gay men who have come after him. 

To others, to people unlike us, Matthew is a lesson about the repercussions of homophobia and how it has come to stain America’s history. Not to us. To us, he is a reminder. On one hand, he is a reminder of how far we have come in a few short years. However, just three years after the Pulse nightclub shooting, in a year that has seen enough killings of trans people for The New York Times to label it an “epidemic,” Matthew Shepard is also a reminder of how far we have to go.

Related
Did you work on The Beacon during your time at Emerson? Join The Beacon Alumni Association!