Wyoming mother an enduring figure for gay rights

Wed Feb 20, 2013 3:21pm EST
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By Edith Honan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The mother who championed gay rights after her son was tied to a fence and beaten to death couldn't bear to sit through the play that has helped keep his memory alive for the nearly 15 years since his murder.

But this weekend, at the opening of a double-billing of Moises Kaufman's "The Laramie Project" and "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Judy Shepard - seated in an aisle seat to allow for an easy escape - soldiered through the entire five-hour production, which recalls the story of Matthew Shepard's death in 1998.

"I just really didn't feel I needed to watch it because I lived it. And so many of the scenes bring back such horrific memories. I've never felt comfortable crying in public," Shepard said just before the Saturday performance. "It's been 15 years. I should be able to do this now."

Shepard made it through with the help of hugs from well-wishers at the intermissions.

Kaufman, a playwright and director who leads the Tectonic Theater Project, recalled the Shepard murder as a watershed moment that helped create a generation of activists and energize "straight allies" to the cause of gay rights.

"All of a sudden we had an image, we had an event, that operated as a catalyst," said Kaufman, a Venezuelan native who lives in New York.

The original play was born from the question of why Shepard's murder resonated more than other hate crimes, Kaufman said. The play has been staged more than 1,000 times.

Ten years after Shepard's death, Kaufman and Tectonic returned to Laramie, Wyoming, to produce an epilogue and to interview Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, who are serving life sentences for the murder.   Continued...

Judy Shepard, mother of 21-year-old murder victim Matthew Shepard, poses for a portrait in the Brooklyn borough of New York February 17, 2013. Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in 1998, is one of the most highly publicized cases of a hate-crime against a gay person and has spawned anti-hate legislation, books, plays and movies. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri