In the days, months and years after the murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming the entire country and indeed most of the world focused heavily on the victim’s sexuality and the motives behind his murderer’s savagery. For them, Matthew Shepard was reduced to a representation of the LGBT cause; a poster boy of sorts. However, for the people of Laramie, Matthew Shepard represented more than that. In this essay, I attempt to analyze the reactions a number Laramie residents to the events surrounding Matthew Shepard’s murder and the effect this had on them as portrayed in Moises Kaufmann’s The Laramie Project.
Among the last people to speak to Matthew Shepard, and one who knew him well as a person was the 23-year old Matt Galloway. Galloway was a bartender at the Fireside Lounge, a bar that Matthew Shepard frequented. On the night of the assault, Galloway was at the bar and had served beer to both Shepard and the two men (Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney) who later murdered him, albeit separately. Galloway saw the two men have a conversation with Shepard and eventually leave the bar with him in a black truck. While their departure together seemed entirely consensual and standard, Galloway would later characterize the two men, which he had never met prior to that night, as shady and “ Dirty. Grungy. Rude.” This is in stark contrast with Shepard, who he described as the perfect customer, praising his “ manners, politeness and intelligence.”
Matt Galloway later described his immediate reaction to the reports of Shepard’s assault saying “ Well I’ll tell you I’ll tell you what is overwhelming” (484). After his initial shock, and establishing that Matthew Shepard was indeed the victim, his boss at the Fireside advised him to go to the arraignment and help police in identifying the suspects, a point from which he would play a crucial role in the criminal proceedings against them. Later, however, Galloway appears to bear a degree of guilt and self-condemnation, stating: “ I shoulda noticed. These guys shouldn’ta been talking to this guy. I shoulda not had my head down when I was washing the dishes for those twenty seconds What the hell was I thinking?” (483). Nevertheless, in the end, Matt Galloway appears to have moved on past the incident, expressing his relief at the ending of the trial.
While the incident may not have had an earth-shatteringly profound effect on Matt Galloway, it had precisely that on Reggie Fluty, the police officer who first responded to calls when Matthew Shepard was found, beaten, strung to a fence, but still alive – barely. Officer Fluty, despite her initial shock at the extent of Shepard’s injuries did her job effectively, preparing him for emergency services and administering first aid. Due to faulty gloves, however, she was forced to handle the young man and his injuries without protective covering for her hands. While this did not seem like a major issue initially, it was later revealed to Officer Fluty that Shepard was HIV+ and that her compassionate actions had placed her in direct danger of acquiring the virus. Although in the end it proves to be a negative score, it elicits a comprehensive realization by Officer Fluty and her family as to the risks she faces in her line of work as a police officer. While her parents encourage her to leave the force, the incident with Matthew Shepard reinforces Fluty’s conviction in what she does, despite the massive risks involved. In the end, Fluty expresses a need for herself and the town to move on past the incident, signifying an acceptance and a transition past it.
Dr. Cantway, the emergency room doctor who tended to Matthew Shepard’s injuries goes through a similar process to Officer Fluty’s. Dr. Cantway initially expresses a sort of denial, believing that only someone from out of town could have hurt Shepard like that. Later, however, she realizes that she had been treating one of Shepard’s assailants simultaneously – Aaron McKinney. This coincidence, combined with the nature of the two parties as “ just two kids”, brings her to a rather philosophical epiphany. She wonders whether that is how God views people, who she believes to be His children; as simple children, bickering with each other and needlessly hurting each other while at it. It is worth noting that unlike most of the other characters, Dr. Cantway feels a compassion towards the perpetrators as her religious leanings drive her to view them as being no different from the victims, but as children who made one vile transgression.
A rather similar reaction is also observed with Aaron Kreifels, the young man who found Matthew Shepard, eighteen hours after his assault at the hands of Henderson and McKinney. Initially, while at the scene, Kreifels feels a high helplessness as he cannot do much for Shepard. Later, he struggles to understand the senselessness of the entire thing. Additionally, his role in the incident confuses him further. Being a Christian, Kreifels does not know why God led him to find Shepard at that particular time, especially considering that he had never before been to that spot. While he is obviously bothered by what happened to Shepard, Kreifels is nonetheless bothered by his presence at the scene. Eventually, he also has his epiphany, concluding “ That the reason God let me find him is, for he didn’t have to die out there alone, you know. And if I wouldn’t of come along, they wouldn’t of found him for at least a couple weeks at least” (487).
The events surrounding the murder of Matthew Shepard appeared to have an immensely profound effect on the people of Laramie. This is aptly illustrated in The Laramie Project.
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Kaufman, Moisés, et al. The Laramie Project. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. 2010.