By Duane Wells
Originally published on Advocate.com October 26 2009 11:15 AM ET
On Sunday afternoon, just steps away from Kodak Theatre and the bustle of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a star-studded cast culled from Hollywood’s current “It List” gathered for an emotional and moving event that had little to do with Tinseltown and everything to do with the small town in Wyoming that served as the location for what would become a turning point in the gay rights movement.
The event, held at the Hollywood United Methodist Church, was a special all-star reading of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later: An Epilogue that featured the likes of Zachary Quinto (Heroes, Star Trek), fresh off his evening at Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center’s 38th Anniversary Gala honoring Wanda Sykes; James Cromwell (Surrogates, Babe); Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory); Johnny Galecki (The Big Bang Theory); Julie Benz (Dexter); and Lisa Edelstein (House), among others.
The play followed up on the award-winning production The Laramie Project, which documented the aftermath of the gruesome, hate-motivated murder of 21-year-old gay college student Matthew Shepard in 1998 and the impact the event had on the residents of Laramie, Wyo.
The epilogue to the original production, which was adapted for film by HBO in 2002, revisits many of the subjects of the first play, only to find out that the town and many of those who still call it home have changed very little in the last 10 years. What had changed in this new production, however, was the inclusion for the first time of interviews with Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, as well as with Matthew’s killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. As read by Johnny Galecki (McKinney} and Zachary Quinto (Henderson), transcripts of conversations with the murderers, while simultaneously evoking painful and haunting memories, offered riveting insights into the psyches of the men behind the crime that stepped up the push for hate-crimes legislation across America.
The moment that perhaps brought the symbolic importance of the event to the fore occurred toward the end of the production when actress Helen Shaver (The 4400, The L Word) read the following words from Judy Shepard: “Ten years of change, but no progress.” It was, like the event itself, a powerful reminder that in the 11 years since Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder, there is still, as Mrs. Shepard has reminded us time and again, no gay-inclusive federal hate-crimes law, no end in sight to the military’s discriminatory “don't ask, don't tell” policy, and no movement on reversing the Defense of Marriage Act.
This week, however, at least one aspect of that could change, as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, recently passed by Congress, heads to President Barack Obama’s desk, where it is expected to be signed into law. Over a decade after Matthew Shepard’s murder sent shock waves throughout the LGBT population, the new federal hate-crimes legislation not only represents the progress that Judy Shepard and countless others have fought for, but a fitting memorial to Matthew Shepard, whose life and horrific death reignited a movement.