Belfast Pride Hosts The Laramie Project

Hard-hitting drama tells the tragic story of Matthew Shepard

In 1998, when 21-year old University of Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard, was tortured and murdered because of his sexual orientation, no hate crime law existed in the state to prevent his killers from being convicted under existing homicide legislation.

At the trial of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson – who had met Shepard at a bar near the town of Laramie and offered to give him a ride home before pistol whipping him, tying him to a post and beating him into a coma – defense lawyers pleaded the 'gay panic defense', attempting to convince the jury that their clients had been driven to 'temporary insanity' by Shepard's sexual advances.

Some months earlier, Baptist Minister Fred Phelps had picketed Shepard's funeral, waving signs that read 'No Tears for Queers' and 'Fag Matt in Hell'. Wyoming had come a long way since being the first state to grant women the vote – but not far enough.

In 2000, American playwright Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project debuted The Laramie Project, which was, according to Northern Irish actress and founder of the Dundonald Association of Music and Drama (DAMD), Melissa Smith, 'one of the first examples of verbatim theatre', and way ahead of its time.

Kaufman and Co had interviewed members of the Laramie community over a two-year period following the trial of McKinney and Henderson, to find out how Shepard's murder had affected them as individuals and in a collective sense. The resulting play included almost eighty characters played by 8 actors, and told the story of Shepard's murder in almost clinical detail.

Now the DAMD are preparing to perform The Laramie Project at the Lyric Theatre as part of this year's Belfast Pride celebrations. The production is supported by the Policing Board in partnership with the Rainbow Project and the Board’s (LGBT) reference group.

'It’s graphic,' admits Smith. 'When Matthew was discovered by a young boy on a bicycle, the boy almost drove past him because he thought he was a scarecrow. He had been tied to a post and tortured for two hours. We also deal with the interrogation of his murderers in the play, so it’s an emotional piece. It’s uncomfortable, but there is also humour there, as there is in all communities.'

Following the death of their son, a campaign led by Shepard's parents, Judy and Dennis, to introduce hate crime legislation at state and federal level in the States was continually blocked by Republican senators. In 2007 the then President, George W Bush even threatened to veto the Matthew Shepard Act if it ever made it to his desk, 'because of his views on homosexuality,' says Smith.

Eventually, after much hard work, the Act finally made it through the Senate by a vote of 68-29, and was signed into law by President Obama on October 28, 2009, almost a decade after Matthew's death. Smith is in awe of the efforts of Judy Shepard. 'She's an amazing woman. She took an awful event and campaigned for something good to come out of it.'

Speaking about the play's run at the Lyric Theatre, Chair of the Policing Board’s LGBT Reference Group, John O'Doherty, praised the DAMD for choosing to bring The Laramie Project to Northern Ireland, where, he says, 'homophobic hate crimes account for a higher percentage of violent attacks than other hate crimes'.

'The Laramie Project is a very powerful play, and this is a great opportunity to discuss the issue of homophobia and how it impacts on individuals, the LGBT community and society as a whole,' said O'Doherty. 'It presents a provocative challenge to our communities as we try to influence the hearts and minds of young and old to create safe places and spaces in Northern Ireland.'

The need to 'influence hearts and minds' in Northern Ireland is indeed pressing. Although the Criminal Justice Act legislates against hate incidents and hate crimes here in Northern Ireland, there is still much work to be done to promote tolerance and acceptance in the wider community. O'Doherty illustrated this point by making reference to the murder of 32-year old Sean Fitzpatrick, who was murdered by two Lithuanian men in Dungannon in March, 2008.

Harriet Long is LGBT Advocacy Worker with the Rainbow Project – a charity that works to improve the physical, mental and emotional health of gay, bisexual and non-heterosexual men in Northern Ireland. She argues that The Laramie Project and other events taking place around Belfast Pride will work towards raising awareness, and should encourage victims of hate crimes to report them to the police.

'There is a very clear distinction between hate incidents and hate crimes in Northern Ireland,' she explains. 'And we would encourage people to report all hate incidents – whether that be damage to property, threats of violence or anything else – so as to prevent further hate crimes.

'Pride is a fun, social festival,' Long added, 'and we don't want to ruin people's enjoyment, but we do want to raise awareness. In 2009/2010 there were 175 hate incidents, and 112 hate crimes, reported in Northern Ireland. But reporting of incidents is up, and that is down to the work of the Rainbow Project and increased confidence within the LGBT community.'

Belfast Pride Festival takes place in various venues throughout Belfast from July 23-30. Log on to their website below for more information.