Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Last month I was privileged to attend an extremely moving reading of The Laramie Project, by Moises Kauffman and the Tectonic Theater Project, and presented by Napa Valley College in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard. A cast of 11 people spoke the words of real live residents of Laramie, WY, who were interviewed within a month of Matthew's death. (Followup interviews with many of those same residents were also done recently.) Matt, as his friends knew him, was a gay college student and was brutally murdered in 1998 by two Laramie men. The well-delivered performance evoked a whole range of powerful emotions. As someone noted in the discussion following the reading, what gives the play such impact is that the truth is spoken aloud, no matter how painful.
What made the performance a truly unique "painful grace" was the appearance of Judy Shepard, Matt's mother, and head of the Matthew Shepard Foundation. A short, somewhat shy, unassuming red-head, she spoke briefly to the 200 or so people gathered, and concluded by graciously excusing herself from seeing the play, though she did participate later in the discussion. She noted that she had seen the Project once some time ago, and had "fallen apart".
During the discussion someone from the audience asked her how she and her family could continue not to hate the two young men who killed her son. She related that the Shepard family had come together the Christmas just after Matt's death and had determined that if they responded with hatred, they would only perpetuate the ugly cycle of intolerance and violence at the root of the problem. So, they committed their lives to "erase hate", and began the Foundation. That being said, Judy was also candid in observing how deep the hurt still is, even after 10 years, and how there are times when feelings of anger surface. But, she poignantly commented, "You can't teach from the dark..."
That sentiment came through loud and clear in this morning's Press Democrat, where Sara Gardner-Heart, a junior at Santa Rosa High School, wrote an amazing article in the Teen Life section, entitled "Why shouldn't my parents be allowed to marry?" Sara notes the every day she wears a purple wristband which says "Erase hate". I'm quite sure it's exactly the same as those advertised on the Matthew Shephard Foundation website. She wears it, she says, to remind her of "the important battle I and millions of others face every single day: the battle for equality." As most of you know, Proposition 8, a thinly veiled attempt to put a stop to the recent legalization of gay marriages in California, was apparently passed (although the final count is not yet complete) by less than 4.5%. Sara notes that she has grown up in a family with two loving parents -- and "Both of them happen to be women."
Sara goes on to describe how this was never a problem in her kindergarten days. "That," she says, "was before we were jaded with the politics of our parents and leaders." Knowing first-hand a completely normal relationship with her parents and an equally normal day-to-day existence, she laments the hurtfulness of mean and cruel comments which she sometimes hears regarding gay people. "Is it really hurting others if a same-sex couple gets married? No. It is not. It isn't taking anything away from anyone or forcing anyone to do anything..."
Given the current sentiments of many who supported and voted for Proposition 8, including perhaps parents of some of her own schoolmates, it took courage and conviction for this young woman to share her story publicly. I applaud her and encourage her to keep speaking out in order to "Erase hate". The testimony of people like Sara and Judy Shepard and countless others who continue to advocate for equal rights for all people are, indeed, "painful graces". Nevertheless, as Judy Shepard says, "You can't teach from the dark..."