After watching a beautiful performance of The Laramie Project at my school, I’ve been pondering Matthew Shepard’s transformation from a man into an icon. I asked my mother if she thought it was worth dying so brutally if you would become immortalized, and she pointed out that Matthew has been immortalized as a victim, not a person. For example, if I was murdered, people would read in the paper that i was an 18-year-old female student, and perhaps a description of my appearance and a statement that I get straight A’s. What about my love for Reeses Peanut Butter Cups and Richard III? What about my goofy laugh and my inordinate vanity about my ears and my obsession with crossword puzzles? I would be described as a mere shadow of myself. What quirks did Matthew Shepard possess that have been swallowed up in his status as “a brutally murdered gay man”? What did his laugh sound like, what was his favorite movie, was he a sloppy eater? Nobody asks about his personal likes and dislikes.
Matthew has become more and less than who he was–we see in him reflections of ourselves. Somebody who hates gay people may see his fate as some sort of divine retribution and feel self-righteous. Someone who is gay might wonder, “Could that happen to me too?” and feel empathy. We project onto Matthew our own thoughts and opinions and feelings. Not only a mirror, matthew is also a snapshot of America at the time of his death. Our reactions, the media onslaught, who said what and why–it’s all been recorded and analyzed and criticized and praised. And The Laramie Project is part of that reaction, a record of the reaction.
I can almost feel jealous of Matthew Shepard. He was murdered in a way that nobody wants to die, he lost everything he might have been and done and become, but he gained immortality. His name will go down in history books as a testament to America’s feelings about gay people. They’ll make remakes of “The Laramie Project: The Movie” with big-name actors who will talk about their “experiences with gay people” on the extended version of the DVD. But like my mother said, Matthew will be an eternal victim. When the people who actually knew him die, nobody will know whether he once had secret dreams of being an astronaut or writing a prize-winning novel. His importance is as a mirror for us, as a snapshot of America, not as a human being with feelings and hopes. And so instead of jealousy, I can feel pity–I can pray that if I ever become known outside of my circle of friends and family, I will be known for something that I do, not something that others do to me.