In consultation with the Vancouver School Board’s diversity staff, gay-straight alliance students at Vancouver’s Lord Byng Secondary School are producing Moises Kaufman’s play, The Laramie Project.
It’s the story of the fallout from the 1998 homophobic torture killing of queer Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard by two cowardly thieves who picked him up in a bar.
It’s the same play that was cancelled earlier this fall by Surrey school district officials who said the work, which has been produced more than 1,500 times across North America, contains too much sex, violence and foul language.
Lord Byng vice-principal, Tim McGeer, says the play dovetails well with the school’s anti-homophobia policies, but that it’s not being produced in reaction to the cancellation in Surrey.
“It’s something they were planning prior to [the Surrey decision],” he says. “They were doing a unit on political theatre.
“We were fully supportive of the production because we feel that the themes in the play are in accordance with the kinds of values that we’re wanting to express, promulgate with the students and community at large.”
McGeer says the play speaks directly to the Vancouver School Board policy around homophobia, Charter of Rights issues and the district’s anti-bullying policies. He says the production is even more important now that the same-sex marriage issue has resurfaced with Conservative leader Stephen Harper’s promise to revisit it if he manages to form a government.
“We’re looking at it around the broader theme of tolerance and promotion of diversity,” says McGeer. “As a social responsibility project, it’s perfect.”
He says the whole school is becoming involved because the play’s themes are being discussed in courses such as social studies, English and law.
The students received a much-appreciated bit of support in late November when Laramie Project playwright Kaufman paid them a visit. “They loved him being there,” says McGeer. “They felt affirmed. They felt they were doing something important, which they are. [Kaufman] focused on applauding them.”
Vancouver queer community activist and Little Sister’s bookstore co-owner Jim Deva, and Aaron Webster’s cousin Fred Norman, will also visit with Lord Byng students prior to opening night. McGeer says having Deva and Norman meet the students localizes the issues raised in The Laramie Project.
Norman says there are similarities between his cousin’s killing and Shepard’s.
Webster was savagely beaten to death in Vancouver’s Stanley Park in November 2001 after being chased naked from a gay cruising area by thugs.
The play “teaches tolerance,” says Norman. “There are choices. Aaron’s last words were: ‘That’s enough, guys.’ He would be here today if one of them had paid heed to those words.”
Deva says he wants to hear the students’ ideas about hatred and how they think homophobic incidents can be stopped. “I want to know why young men travel around in cars with clubs,” he says. “I think they’ll have the answers I don’t. It really intrigues me.”
Deva calls the September cancellation of the Surrey production unfortunate.
“I suspect it would be really even more important in Surrey high schools,” he says.
It was the Surrey district that fought a seven-year legal battle to keep three gay-themed books out of district libraries until the Supreme Court of Canada ordered it to reconsider that position in 2002. Upon review, school officials decided to reject the books, they said, not because they were too gay, but because they felt they were badly written.
There was an open call for the Surrey production of The Laramie Project. Students who showed up to audition were told school district officials had put the last-minute kibosh on the production because of its content.
Alex Carson, one of the students who hoped to land a part in that production told the Vancouver Sun in September, “We were told it was too violent and there was homosexuality in it. But the only violence was just people talking about it-there’s no actual violence in the play.”
But a Surrey school district official told Xtra West that the queer content in the play had nothing to do with the cancellation. The Surrey production of The Laramie Project was replaced with a production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a play about censorship.
Wyoming police said in 1998 that robbery was the main motive in Shepard’s killing but that the killers may have singled him out because he was gay.
An American jury found Aaron McKinney not guilty of premeditated, or first degree, murder in Shepard’s death but convicted him on the lesser charge of felony murder because the killing occurred during the commission of a planned kidnapping and robbery. He’s serving two life sentences.
Russell Henderson, Shepard’s other assailant, pleaded guilty to felony murder and kidnapping and is also serving two life sentences.
McKinney testified he and his accomplice only wanted to rob Shepard, but that when Shepard grabbed McKinney’s genitals and attempted to lick his face, it brought back memories of childhood sexual abuse which caused him to attack the five-foot-two, 105-pound Shepard with a pistol butt.
Shepard died five days after his blood-soaked body was found tied to a fence in rural Wyoming in sub-zero temperatures. His skull had been fractured in six places.
In the Webster killing, two youths who were old enough to participate in the assault but too young to be identified, received three-year sentences, while Ryan Cran received six years in prison. Danny Rao was acquitted.