Sunday, September 21, 2008

September 29

Journal entry: Greg Pierotti
September 29, 2008

I am so frustrated. I have been hitting a lot of dead ends. The number for Hing has turned out to be wrong, so now I am frantically trying to find another lead for that. Rob Debree was super busy with the law officer's convention in town, and as soon as that was over his mom fell and broke her hip so he has really needed to attend to that situation and we were unable to meet yesterday. I just spoke to him again and he said she is in recovery and seems to be doing OK, but I could tell he was very worried. He asked me to say a prayer for her, and I ask everyone who reads this to do the same. We are going to try to meet tomorrow morning before I leave and if he can't do it, he is going to give me a phone interview.

I have tried a number of times to approach people for "man on the street" interviews. People have all been very nice, happy to chat, but the prevailing view is that it has been forgotten about. No one knows anything. When I wonder if have they heard the latest reversion to the story that it was a drug deal gone bad, people say, "not really," nobody is talking about it at all.

Talking to two guys at a strip mall one says, "I've only been here four months. The only thing I know about it is I remember it from the news when it happened and then he," pointing to his friend, "took me out where it happened. I say, "I thought they took it down." Other guy, "Yeah they did. I just brought him out to the area there, out by Walmart." I ask, "Why did you want to do that?" Other guy, "That's what we're famous for." "But nobody really talks about it?" "No, not really."

At the Barber shop I am told that the latest news is that all three of them were gay. When I probe further into this I am told that Doc O'connor had sex with the killers. It turns out the source of the story is Elizabeth Vargas's disgusting 20/20 special on the killers, where she basically, at least in my view, reports rumors as news. She quotes McKinney (the convicted murderer) on whether it was a hate crime rather than Rob Debree (the chief investigating officer). Among the discredited theories that she drags back out is the old saw that it was only a drug deal gone bad. Again without a word of counter balance from Debree who investigated the crime. But even at the Barber shop, the talk is more about Doc than Matthew. The barber tells me, "to be perfectly honest, people have forgotten it." The guy in the chair says, "actually they're putting up a bench at the University as a memorial." "Where did you hear that?" I ask. "I don't know," he tells me. The Boomerang I think. I just scan the headlines."

Even the young gay student I interviewed last night does not seem particularly interested in Matt himself. "Gay rights is an issue everywhere and we need to do something about it next month (October is gay awareness month on campus). But it should be about Legislation and gay rights, not about Matthew. This kind of thing happens everywhere not just in Laramie." When I point out that it happened here he agrees that I have a point. When I suggest that there is something important about acknowledging Matthew simply because his story seemed to resonate so deeply for so many people around the world, he concedes it's something to consider. But tells me, "still we don't really need a gay martyr." The statement agitates me all night long.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Extreme Wind Possible

September 19, 2008
Jounal Entry:  Greg Pierotti

Yesterday, I drove down to Ft. Collins and met with Rulon Stacey.  On the drive the high plains were quite austere.  A few miles beyond the cement factory, which is one of Laramie's most significant architectural highlights, I passed a sign I had never seen before.  "Extreme wind possible next 5 miles."  It is a very windy edge of town.  This is out by where McKinney lived with with his girlfriend.  Farther on I noticed that the moment you cross into Colorado there are pine trees everywhere, where the prairie on the Wyoming side is bald and full of snow fences.  I don't know if that is because of an altitude difference or what, but since it coincided with the border, I wondered if it had to do with logging laws or something.

Rulon was as warm and kind hearted and dignified as ever.  I got choked up a number of times in our interview.  Before I headed back up to Laramie, Leigh drove up from Boulder - she is teaching at Naropa University right now - and we had lunch and touched base.  It was good to connect with someone from the company, and particularly to see her.  Way back, when we got started, she and I did almost all our work together on the play, so it was feeling weird to be here without her.  

Headed back up and met Marge Murray, who is just as tough and wonderful, in spite of a heart attack and severe asthma and being on continuous oxygen.  She had to quit smoking a few years back.  Talking with her of her smoking, I thought of Amanda Gronich who played her toughness and cough and smoking to simultaneously poignant and comic effect in the play.  It was a sort of Amanda Gronich part of the afternoon because driving to Marge's trailer on Beaufort St., I passed the plain white baptist church on ninth street, where we first heart the Baptist minister preaching his religious hate.  Amanda played him too.

After a quick stop at home to feed Beth's cat, Mason, I went to Jonas's house.  He showed me his and Bill's garden and then we had our interview and organic eggplant parmesan.  Jonas was Jonas.  Candid, articulate, funny and open minded.  He told me he is now totally out everywhere in his life and even that in rural towns in Wyoming when he and Bill are at motels and ask for a single room with only one bed and speak to each other with intimate endearments that couples use, usually people don't bat an eyelash.  A far cry from legalized marriage or hate crimes legislation, but something I found surprising none the less.

This morning I spoke with Moises on the phone.  Then I went to breakfast with Marge and Reggie, and we were joined by Reggie's husband, daughter, sister, and best friend.  They are a boisterous group and there was lots of laughter. I was just trying to relax, not looking for material as both Marge and Reggie have been interviewed, but even as I laughed along at their outrageous family stories, I couldn't shake this strange sadness and anxiety I have felt since I have been here.  I know it has been taken down, but I feel like I need to go out to the fence.  I just can't seem to find Matt in all this, and it hurts.

Going to call Rob DeBree next.  We meet later today.

Laramie, Now

Journal Entry: Mois├ęs Kaufman

September 13.

First full day of interviews. 7 in total.

In the morning talked to a gay man who told me that "Laramie hasn't changed much. But the gay community here has. We are more visible, stronger, closer!"  The murder of Matthew made many people come out and that had a strong community building effect.  Bonds and allegiances were made. For 6 years now they've been doing an AIDS walk and a new GLBTQ organization called Spectrum is doing terrific work in campus. Overall, gay and lesbians are more visible here. That's no small feat.

However legislatively, not a single piece of legislation protecting gays has passed. Nothing at the state level. At the city level, a small reporting requirement ordinance for the police is all that has been allowed to pass.

There's also a great deal of people who are trying to re-write history. Saying it wasn't a hate crime. It was a robbery gone bad. Or it was drugs.

Which is a very hard thing to hear. All anyone has to do is read McKinney's confession.  Or his girlfriend Kirsten's confession.

I find it telling that the fence to which Matthew was tied has been dismantled. The Fireside Bar has been renamed JJ's (although the interior is the same). And we've heard many people say: "we're trying to move on".

It's important to remember that Laramie was very hurt not only by the brutal murder but by the media portrayal of it as a town of "rednecks and hillbillies and cowboys" which of course it's not. What we found so interesting about Laramie is not how different it is from the rest of the country, but how similar.  Ten years ago we heard so many times people cry out against the media portrayal: "We're not like this!". The town's reputation had been tarnished. And there's still the need for many people to "set the record straight".

Several of the interviewees talked about burnout. There's still so much work to do in the state. And too many people who want to "put this behind them".

At night we go to a reception at the university for theater students who are performing in new plays. They are all in their late teens early twenties  and so full of life and joy. It's good to be with them. And I think of Matthew.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Greg Pierotti

Journal Entry: Greg Pierotti

The altitude makes me thirsty, and I was totally parched as I came into Laramie on 287, so I drove passed Gardiner to go to the Kum and Go – yes, that is what it’s called…the Kum and Go. The decision was made so automatically, and it struck me. In the middle of a town like Laramie that should have been completely off my radar for my entire life, I know automatically and without question that there is a convenience store five blocks up on the right where I could get some water. It was the kind of unconcerned decision making I do when I am at home. This town has become part of me in the same complicated way that home is. The Kum and Go was there two blocks past the ranger motel – which has beautiful new neon signage.

It seemed like late night because the sky was completely obscured with a steep bank of blue black clouds. Over the Snowy mountains to the North and West, there was a little gap of bright light - tornado yellow and streaked with Verga. The freezing wind was tearing small branches from the trees and tossing them into the road. I was struck, just as I was the first time I came here, by the extremity of the environment. The land and sky here are massive full of power and threat. They seem to dwarf all my concepts about how Laramie should have changed. I feel intimidated in the face of this work. It’s hard, alone in the middle of the night, to get a perspective on it. Here I am again, eight years later, to ask these people living in this fierce vastness, how they have changed!

I’m at Beth’s now. I have arrived in Laramie in the wake of the other company members who left on the 15th. It is strange to be here alone. I was here one other time alone, for the interview with Detective sergeant Rob Debree after Aaron’s death penalty trial (Rob hadn’t been able to speak with us till the trials were over). But everything was such a hurry then, and I think I was only here for one day. This time I am here for 5 days with none of my collaborators. My friend, Beth Loffreda, whose place I am staying at, is gone too. She left for Caspar not long after I arrived. So this is new, this alone-ness. In the company of friends, I am talkative and love to laugh and joke. Without that to distract me, I am left feeling incredibly sad and shaky. Sad about Matthew and Aaron and Russell, sad as I read the other company members entries, sad about how time just keeps going for all of us. It doesn’t help the intensity of my mood that a branch that screeches shrilly against the window of the guest bedroom. It sounds like Freddy Kruger coming to get me.

I can hear a train passing.

I head back out again in the morning to see Rulon Stacy at the Poudre Valley Health Center in Fort Collins. This is a man who I have spent only a few hours with in my whole life; a Mormon, who once said to me that Homosexuality is not a lifestyle that he agrees with. Yet he has lived in my mind over the years as one of the purest examples of how courageous and tender hearted human beings can be in the face of great pain. Thinking of him, I feel lucky to have been a part of this.

More trains.

A Life-Defining Event

Journal Entry:  Stephen Belber

My trip to Laramie was short but it so clearly reminded me of what a life-defining event this was for so many people, including myself.  There was Matt Galloway, who runs his father's bar up in Casper, and who still feels the sting of guilt for not having stopped Matthew from leaving with Russell and Aaron that night, and who (repeatedly) made the point of telling me how proud he is that his bar is a place where his gay friends can come in and feel comfortable being who they are.  This from a former small-town frat boy who didn't even know that he knew gay people before Matt was killed.  He remains a funny, talkative, thoughtful and huge-hearted person.  

I also sat with Russell's Mormon spiritual advisor, for whom this was also a life-defining event.  He spoke about how awful he feels for Russell, (his remains convinced that Russell tried to stop Aaron that night, and that while Russell surely deserved time, his bleak future in prison (two life terms), with no clear chance at parole, is unfair)---and yet he also admitted to me, when asked what, if anything, positive might have emerged from all this, that Russell's life may well be for the better, in that he now has a GED and several college credits to his name, and that he is a more spiritual, thoughtful person than he may have been had he continued on the path he was on.  This man also spoke of his own, personal transformation, which he feels now separates him from other members of his church, in terms of the way he thinks about people who live differently than he.

There was also Dave O'Malley, the former chief of police in Laramie, who led the investigation at the time of Matt's murder, who verged on tears several times throughout his interview as he spoke of his former, homophobic self, in relation to who he is now--a man who has testified repeatedly on the Hill in favor of hate crimes legislation, a man whose wife now helps organize the Laramie AIDS walk, a man who feels genuine, palpable shame in the way he used to think.

And lastly there was Russell Henderson's grandmother, about whom I won't say much because she didn't want to be quoted in any way, and who is someone I've wanted to speak with for 10 years but never had the chance to until Monday.  All I will say is that sitting with her for two hours, as Leigh and I did, was in a way the perfect way to revisit Laramie, in that our conversation reflected thoroughly the complexity of human nature in terms of this entire event.  There is NO black and white, sound-byte-encapsulated, one-note summary to what did or didn't happen--not only that night but in terms of Laramie as a whole.  The true nature of how the people of that town lived through this, reacted to it, learned from it, and will continue to live, is a still-evolving, many-layered, inspiring and heartbreaking beast.  It is truly life-shattering, on many levels, for many people, each of whom continues to try hard to understand, to learn, to love, to forgive, even just to persevere----despite the fact that their perspectives are sometimes obscured by what life has handed to them in terms of tragedy and loss. And this seems to be true for EVERYONE involved.  The people of this play, and much more importantly, this tragedy, are all so profoundly human, and if anything, going to Laramie again and asking them what ten years has done, underlines that with an intense, deadening, sometimes-inspiring bold black pen.  As I looked on the wall of Russell's grandmother's small living room, and saw the intricate, truly beautiful and minutely detailed sketches of Christ that Russell had sent to her from prison, the prison he was in prior to the one where he is now, where they don't allow him to draw at all, all I could think was that 
nothing can be written in stone about this event;  nothing can be definitively declared, about change, about condemnation, about forgiveness.  Because as much as evil acts exist, and history is made, and laws are or are not passed, there will always be the undeniable human-ness of the specific, individual people involved, from Judy Shepard and her relentless and courageous fight on behalf of her son's memory and the future of others like her son---to the small window of hope and its inherent opportunity for solace---dare I say redemption?---for Russell and his grandmother---all of which exists amidst the sadness of the many lives devastated by what happened in Laramie 10 years ago this October.

-Stephen

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

How has Laramie changed?

Journal Entry: Leigh Fondakowski

Leaving Laramie this morning I feel a sudden sadness.  This is a place that has held a lot of meaning for me and for so many people.  One can never say with any degree of certainty what "all" of the people of Laramie think or feel about Matthew Shepard now.  We can only touch down with so many people, and on a case by case basis measure the change in people's hearts through the conversations that we have.  How has Laramie changed?  The people I have met with in the last 48 hours are truly remarkable people -- smart, self-reflective, caring people.  Many call the changes in Laramie inadequate -- Jeffrey Lockwood yesterday called it collective amnesia, a "collective forgetting."  Father Carl at the Neuman Center closed our interview this morning by saying, "Its still not easy to be gay in Wyoming.  People aren't shouting it from the roof tops.  They know who they are, they are comfortable in their own skin, the quietly worship alongside everyone else, they quietly live their lives in a place they love."  And I was struck: is that the highest ideal we can hope for as queer people in society?  To live in a place where we are quietly accepted and yet still struggle to have basic rights under the law -- accepting homophobia as a part of life?  Matthew Shepard has changed so many hearts and minds -- the legacy of his death has clearly shaped the destiny of a lot of people close to him and to the crime.  But how that change reverberates out to the community in general remains unclear.  Maybe time will have more answers.   For now, history is sketchy.  A gay man who grew up in Wyoming and now lives in Laramie said to me yesterday, "Maybe it's time we start talking about forgiveness -- stop arguing over whether or not it was a hate crime or drug crime or some combination of both -- but really talk about forgiveness.  Cathy Connolly is running for a State House seat.  The gang of four on campus (Zackie Salmon, Beth Loffreda and Cathy Connolly among them) continue to fight for domestic partner benefits, for GLBT curriculum, for ideas that will shape the hearts and minds of the next generation of Wyoming kids.  They are doing the good work.  They are fighting the good fight.  And the people who are open to it here in Laramie are still asking the questions.

-Leigh

Unitarian Service

Journal Entry: Andy Paris

Sunday in Laramie began at breakfast with Rebecca Hilliker and her husband Rich.  They invited me to go hiking with them in the afternoon, but my interview schedule prevented it.  I would have loved to get out into the wilderness that is so intensely valued by the people here.  But time is short and I am trying to speak to as many people as possible.

My day continued at the Unitarian Church, where Dr. Sally Palmer was to speak.  Dr. Palmer was, along with Father Roger Schmidt, one of the most outspoken religious leaders in the days following the murder.  I interviewed her ten years ago, and though she did not end up as a character in the play, her courage and commitment to peace have stayed with me.  At the time, she was Pastor of the United Church of Christ, but she has recently retired.  I felt very welcomed at the church, but it was clear that I was a mysterious figure, a stranger.  Plus I am not a church-goer so I'm sure I had novice written all over my face.  I sat down in the pew (toward the back) and Sally was introduced.  The first chapter of the service was the children's service -- four or five sweet, young faces sitting in the front pew.  Dr. Palmer announces that the children's service would take the form of a story.  "Andy", she says, "would you care to help me?"  Completely frozen, jaw dropped, I blabbered, "I'm sorry?" She brought me up in front of the congregation, and asked me to introduce myself, and tell the congregation what I was doing here.  Nervous, I though, "Well, at least it's the Unitarians.  Leigh is with the Baptists."  The story central to the service was that of a reporter who goes to Japan to seek enlightenment.  I was to play the reporter, of course.  I was handed an empty mug and on a stool sat a bowl and a pitcher of water.  "What do you seek." Sally asked.  "Enlightenment," I played along.  And I placed the mug so that it sat in the bowl.  While holding onto it, Sally poured water from the pitcher, but she kept pouring so that it overflowed, not allowing me to pick up my mug.  "In order to find enlightenment, you must first empty your thoughts and be still.  Are you disappointed?" she asked.  "No," I said, and though she didn't say so, I got the distinct impression that I had said the wrong line.