A school official leads two men single file through a maze of winding hallways and stairwells. She’s moving a little too quickly for them. She’s used to it, they’re not. It’s just before first period at Lord Byng Secondary School in Vancouver and these corridors are crammed to the edges with impossibly young-looking students on their way to classes.
The men are doing their best to keep up, but they’re fish out of water here. This is the first time they’ve done anything like this. They don’t know what to expect. What is the social etiquette for crossing a throng of hundreds of teenagers on their own turf? Are you supposed to just shove your way through? Do you wait for an opening? Some of the students stare at the strangers, but most act is if the newcomers are invisible.
The man in front is Jim Deva, co-owner of Little Sister’s bookstore. He’s been invited by the other man, Fred Norman, to accompany him on this day in mid-December.
They arrive at the school gymnasium. It smells like sweaty teenagers and athletic equipment. It’s a familiar smell. There are pennants hanging dustily from the rafters that commemorate otherwise long-forgotten basketball victories. The bleachers are crammed with 480 students. Most look vaguely board, but glad for the chance to not be in class.
The students at Lord Byng are staging a production of the Laramie Project. It’s the play about queer college student Matthew Shepard who was picked up in a bar in Laramie, Wyoming by two men in 1998. They beat him in the head with a pistol butt, fracturing his skull in six places. They tied him to a fence in sub-zero temperatures and left him to die because he was just a faggot.
Shepard lingered in intensive care for five days, but in the end it was a battle he wouldn’t win. At five-foot-two and 105 pounds, the 20-year-old Shepard was impossibly young-looking too.
The Laramie Project is the same play the Surrey school district abruptly cancelled on audition day this past fall because, they said, it contained too much swearing and violence.
In preparation for their production of the Laramie Project, Lord Byng students are here to hear from Deva and Norman about the infamous beating death of Norman’s cousin Aaron Webster in Vancouver’s Stanley Park in 2001.
“The difference between Laramie ,Wyoming and Vancouver is smaller than you think,” says Christine Quintana, one of the student cast members. “You can look on a map, or you can look at our own culture where violent hate crimes still occur in our own city.”
Norman takes the microphone. He doesn’t look very comfortable with 480 pairs of eyes on him. He keeps his eyes mostly on his notes and his own shoes, but he presses on with his message.
“Two detectives came over to explain that Aaron had been in a fight and that he had been murdered,” he recounts. “I asked, ‘What happened in this fight?’ The one detective said he was in a fight with five men. I remember at that time saying, ‘That doesn’t sound like a fair fight.’
“They didn’t have any reply because they were still investigating, but they believed that individuals were targeting gay males and they basically beat Aaron to a pulp with a golf club and pool cues. They left him for dead.”
Of course, Webster’s 2001 murder was a seminal event in Vancouver’s queer community.
Norman promises the students he won’t talk for too long, as if his story is an imposition. He reads haltingly from Pam Miller’s victim impact statement as she read it in court before the sentencing of one of Webster’s killers. Webster was Miller’s big brother.
“The picture of Aaron lying dead in Stanley Park will haunt me until the day I leave this earth,” reads Norman. “My brother, that body on the ground, killed by someone. That was my brother! What an ugly, gruesome image to carry in my mind.”
After reading Miller’s statement, Norman struggles to find the words to wrap up. He doesn’t seem choked with emotion, just unsure.
“I applaud all of you for taking part in the Laramie Project,” he stammers some. “Aaron would probably say you have a long life ahead of you. Words can be terrible weapons. I’m just here to say do well in your studies. Educate yourself. It’s the best thing you can do.”
To a smattering of awkward applause from the students, Norman passes the mike to Lord Byng vice-principal Rob Schindel. Schindel dresses and talks like a vice-principal.
“The words you choose to speak with one another will ultimately determine if you build up and support one another, or tear each other apart and not,” he says. “Sitting in an auditorium with about 480 students in it, if we look at possibly one in 10 of you being gay, there would be 48 people in this room that might be.
“Each one of you is an essential thread in this community. I encourage you to strengthen that social fabric with your words and actions.”
In the end, it’s hard to tell if Webster’s story or the significance of the Laramie Project production has had an impact on the audience.
It wasn’t an interactive presentation. There wasn’t a chance to ask questions. The crowd was neither deathly quiet nor fidgety while Norman spoke. Was he preaching to the converted, the uninterested or even the secretly hostile?
It’s what lurks under the veneer of political correctness, within the hearts and minds of young people, that the queer community is so interested to hear about. Why? Because it was young people who beat Webster to death in 2001. Because queer people are still randomly attacked in BC and across the country, and because queer people have to fight tooth and nail for the barest positive mention in curriculum materials.
Mostly though, it’s because of those 48 hypothetical queer kids in the audience. What are they learning about themselves at school? Are they learning that most people secretly hate them for who they are? Are they learning that the best thing to do with feelings of same-sex attraction is to repress them? Are they learning that openly queer people are somehow subhuman and therefore worthy victims?
What, if anything, are kids really being taught about queer people once the classroom door is closed? What values about queer people and queer sexuality are kids bringing into schools from their homes?
Two of Quintana’s classmates, who are acting in the Lord Byng production, gather with her in the hallway after the presentation.
“In every school there are going to be homophobic feelings,” says Devin Karringten. “I feel like this is something that needs to be said because it deals with tolerance, not specifically just homophobia, but all types of phobia.”
“It’s prevalent, but it’s laid-back,” agrees Chloë Packer. “That sounds weird, but you know, ‘that’s so gay’ is used, but it’s not vicious. It’s just slang.”
“It’s like people saying ‘retarded,’ which I don’t say,” says Quintana. “Also a lot of people at other schools are way worse off. They don’t have gay-straight alliances (GSAs). They have people who are openly homophobic.”
“It exists here, but it’s not as big a problem as it as at other schools,” says Packer.
“I feel like you’d be judged more here for being homophobic than for being gay,” says Quintana. “We’ve got a really strong, well supported GSA. It’s very much a part of the school community.”
Schindel says the attitude towards gay people among students has improved over the years since Webster’s murder.
“However,” he says, “I think there are some members in our community who are carrying this hate for whatever reason. I think our job is to educate students and make them aware of what the issue is. Hopefully, when they are living in the context of our greater community, they will be more inclined toward helping individuals.”
Why is the play appropriate for Vancouver, but too queer for Surrey? It’s a hard question to ask of someone in Schindel’s position, and he answers the question he wished he’d been asked instead.
“There is going to be swearing in the play,” he says, “but that type of language is going to drive the hate of the characters in the play, you know, the hate that the play carries forth. I think it makes the play very real to the circumstances they’re experiencing with some of the members in their community.”
The student actors have a slightly different take. There’s a nervous look among them and a pause. “We have to be careful,” one says, but they are prepared for the question.
“You have a play like the Laramie Project that is a very dynamic, different piece of theatre,” recites Quintana. “It does have strong language. It does have violent images, but it also carries a strong message of understanding and compassion.
“I think when a school is approached to do this production they have to ask themselves: ‘What is it that we teach? Do we just teach facts? Do we just teach history and math, or do we teach lessons about society and how to be part of a culture that is accepting?’ In our case, the Vancouver School Board stepped up and said, ‘Yes, that is what we teach.’ So that’s how we ended up doing the production.
“That’s I think maybe what didn’t happen in Surrey.”