Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

A Town Reflects on Itself

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

A Town Reflects on Itself

Article excerpt

Laramie changed with the death of Matthew Shepard. Will the changes last?

For the past year Laramie, Wyo., has been more than just the place where Matthew Shepard was murdered. It has also been a character in the morality tale that has played itself out over time, with residents and the press wondering just how much Laramie itself was responsible for the terrible events of last October.

Like the people closest to the tragedy, Laramie itself has been changed by the experience. "I believe Matt's murder is the defining moment in the history of Laramie and Wyoming," says the Rev. Stephen Johnson of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, who arrived in Laramie ten days before Shepard's murder. "A century ago Wyoming prided itself as the Equality State, the first in women's suffrage; a century later, and it has to rethink what that equality means and extend it to all its citizens."

Jim Osborn, a native of Wyoming and an openly gay staff member at the University of Wyoming who was himself once attacked on campus, agrees. "There has been the recognition that, yes, there are lesbian and gay people in Wyoming and, yes, there are threats to our safety here, just as anywhere else," he says.

Meesha Fenimore and Hauva Manookin, a lesbian couple at the university and friends of Shepard's, also sense a changed environment. Fenimore measures those changes personally. She came out in high school, in Cody, Wyo., and promptly got beat up. Then her family disowned her.

"When Matt was killed," she says, "my family came out of the closet. They've been totally supportive. It kills us to think our friend had to die to do this, but Matt wanted to help others, and I'm sure he's thinking, Look at all the people I helped."

She also sees broader indicators of change in the support for gay men and lesbians coming from businesses in the town. She says some shopkeepers put up yellow signs after Shepard's death that read, HATE IS NOT A LARAMIE VALUE, and NO HATE CRIMES.

Many residents of the town still see themselves as unfairly maligned by the portrayal of Laramie in the press as a backwater. Within the state, Laramie is widely considered to be a sophisticated, civilized town, more liberal than the rest of Wyoming. Nonetheless, says Osborn, over the past year Laramie has often been depicted as an "inbred, redneck place where vigilante justice reigns."

"This isn't Hayden Lake, Idaho," the home of the white supremacist group Aryan Nations, says Jay Fromkin, a spokesman for the university. "This town is pretty secure in seeing itself as a good town before the murder, and ifs a good town now."

But the fact that the motive for the crime has never been made clear by the two men charged with the crime bothers residents who want to put the murder behind them. "Shepard's murder remains problematic for people in Laramie," Fromkin says. "Some people believe it was a hate crime, some a crime of opportunity, some a robbery." Russell Henderson pleaded guilty earlier this year, avoiding a trial. In a chilling coincidence, the trial for Aaron McKinney is scheduled to begin one day before the anniversary of Shepard's death.

In some ways, at least, the effects of Shepard's death are easy to measure. According to Brenda Shriner, assistant manager at Laramie's Fireside Lounge, where on that fateful night Shepard met McKinney and Henderson, the murder made its mark on business. Gay tourists still stop by the Fireside, but the bar has lost most of its student clientele over the past year and is just now getting back on its feet.

"There never was a problem here," Shriner says. "People are really tolerant of everyone, from cowboys to jocks." But she says her patrons now seem a little more cautious with their loose talk, "a little more conscientious about the dangers" of ragging on lesbians and gays.

Manookin wonders whether the changes in Laramie will last or wear away with time. …

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