Gay community sees hope in The Laramie

Then I was at the Big Band Dessert and Dance Saturday night, I saw a handsome man across the crowded room.

Fat chance that I was going to have courage enough to ask him to dance. Are you kidding? I might be hit. He might yell at me. I could just see all the worst things happening.

My friend, Wendy, who invited me to the dance, looked over at the guy and then back at me: “I dare you.”

I thought how much I might live with regret if I was always afraid to ask. And then I remembered The Laramie Project, the Guild Society/GALA play I’d seen a few nights before. After what happened to Matthew, who can approach a stranger?

Even in 2010, the fear that gay people have is strong.

The play, concerning the 1998 brutal beating, torture and abandonment of Matthew Shepard on a fence outside of Laramie, Wyoming, because he was gay, can’t help but hit gays and lesbians where they live.

But Aaron Hachey had a different perspective. He also went to see The Laramie Project. He was deeply moved. “On the way home, I had a good cry — a kind of my-life-is-pretty-great cry.”

While Aaron points out that we have a pretty great life here, it chokes many of us to believe that people could still be mistreated for their sexual orientation.

I heard sniffling all around the theatre on opening night.

“Two things that I keep replaying in my mind,” Hachey says. “First was Mike Ivens addressing the press upon Matt’s death. The atmosphere was already so intense I started tearing up.

“When he broke down, that just opened the floodgate of emotion for me. My heart was racing, my throat was so swollen I didn’t even realize I’d stopped breathing and it literally took a couple of sobs to kick start it again.

“I told my friend Kat today that ‘If that scene doesn’t leave you crying, you’ve got a cold, dead heart in your chest’.”

The second was a scene where Stephen Dunbar-Edge, playing Matt’s father, was addressing Aaron McKinney, one of Matthew’s murderers. But while addressing the murderer, Stephen looked directly at the Aaron in the audience.

“We just locked eyes and he was talking to me. I had done this to Matt. I did this to him. And I felt about one inch tall. I was there, man, engaged, feeling (hopefully) what that little, tiny, poor excuse for a man did when Matt Sheppard’s dad was talking to him.”

Stephen Dunbar-Edge had his own perspectives, as an actor inside the play: “We’ve had people come up to us, gay people in the community, saying that they felt validated and acknowledged.

“That they were here. They felt like there’s still a fear about being gay inside the community. You never know, they said, when someone might beat you up.”

There’s a fear, he said, about just being yourself.

Others saw elements of Whitehorse in the play. And Dunbar-Edge says that’s good. I can see how recognizing ourselves on stage, we can’t relegate this play to some backwater American town. Some have even come forward to say how moved they were.

“If we can make a difference in one person’s life with this play,” Dunbar-Edge says, “that’ll be great.”

He admits that the play is not just about being gay, but also being perceived as gay, or even different, and that people still get ostracized, ridiculed and mistreated because of perception.

The murderers of Matthew Shepard were a product of their society — not Laramie specifically — but a culture that misrepresents and ridicules the Other. And that misrepresentation can happen to anyone, anywhere, leading to people like Aarons and Russells acting out what they have been taught by their society.

The play gives every single perspective its moment to speak — good, bad, indifferent — and the actors never make fun of any of those perspectives. They need to be treated respectfully so they can be weighed accurately.

“I think everyone gets heard,” Dunbar-Edge says.

After seeing the play, Hachey says it was a positive message that he got. “It was hope. That’s the message I’ve taken away, that’s what I am feeling today and I think that’s the message they were trying to impress upon me.

“Maybe it’s temporary, but right now I’m feeling like any of these challenges ahead of me are simply small stepping stones. And I have hope.”

I did, too, that Saturday after the play. And that’s why I got up from my table at the Big Band Dessert and Dance and asked the man across the room to dance.

I’ll never forget the look on his face. He chuckled and said, no, but he smiled. And no one beat me up. And no one got angry.

I broke through my own fear, and found a great deal of hope.

May everyone who sees this play find that same hope.

The Laramie Project ends its run at the Guild Hall Feb. 27. Tickets are available at Whitehorse Motors.

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