Photograph by Steven Higgs

BHSN student director Dennis Wilson said he was unprepared for what he learned as he researched the 1998 Matthew Shepard hate crime murder. He directed The Laramie Project on a BHSN stage, which tells the story of the aftermath of the brutal murder.

Matthew Shepard's murder shocked the nation. The 21-year-old gay college student was killed on Oct. 7, 1998, by two men near Laramie, Wyo. After torturing and robbing Shepard, the men tied him to a fence post and left him for dead.

Shepard was discovered 18 hours later by a passing biker in a coma and died shortly thereafter.

Ten years later, Bloomington High School North's (BHSN) Advanced Theatre Production class presented The Laramie Project, a play by Moises Kaufman, that depicts the aftermath of the nation's best-known hate crime.

Shepard's killers invoked the "gay panic defense" during the trial. They said they were driven temporarily insane by Shepard's alleged sexual advances. One eventually pleaded guilty and was given two consecutive life sentences. The other also received two consecutive life sentences after brokering a deal with Shepard's parents.

Before he heard of the play, BHSN student director Dennis Wilson learned about Matthew Shepard and his death.

"I face the history of GLBT every day, and it's not a pretty history," he said. "What I learned about Matthew Shepard astonished me."


The Shepard case astonished the entire nation. It prompted calls for hate crimes legislation to protect victims of crimes motivated by victims' sexual orientation. Neither Wyoming nor the United States had such protections at the time of Shepard's murder.

President Bill Clinton attempted to extend federal hate crimes protections to gays and lesbians in both 1999 and 2000. One bill passed both the U.S. House and Senate in 2000 but died in conference committee.

In 2007, a bill called The Matthew Shepard Act also passed both houses of Congress. It would have added sexual orientation, disability, gender and gender identity to current federal law's protections but failed to survive parliamentary maneuvering and did not pass.

According to Wikipedia, 32 states have hate crimes laws that include sexual orientation, and another
13 have hate crimes laws that do not specifically include it.

Indiana is among the five states that have no hate crimes laws of any kind. The latest attempt to pass one failed in the Indiana House of Representatives last session.


Kaufman and members of his Tectonic Theater Project traveled from New York City to Laramie shortly after Shepard's murder to research the play. Their goal was to gather in-person reactions to the crime from Laramie residents and others who knew Shepard.

Through the project, they conducted more than 400 interviews with about 100 Laramie residents, seeking to learn their emotions, reactions and reflections on the crime.

The result was an internationally successful play that opened in Denver in 2000 and soon thereafter moved to New York. HBO and the Sundance Theater Lab later produced a movie of the play, which premiered at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival.

Kaufman received two Emmy nominations for the film for writer and director.


BHSN Faculty Director Francesca Sobrer originally brought up the idea of doing the play, and her theater students reacted with excitement. At first she looked at the play for practical reasons -- there were enough parts for her actors, and it would allow the students to "stretch."

However, after reading the play more, she got to the message.

"I believe theater should make you think and rethink," Sobrer said. "The whole point of the play is that people need to look at their value systems and re-evaluate them."

Both Sobrer and Wilson want community members who saw the play to take something away from it.

Although Sobrer is leaving the message of the play up to Wilson, she believes community members should think about what they saw.

"The play is about what happened," she said. "We're giving it to them and saying, 'Here, now you sit with this. Think about how the society we live in allowed this to happen.'"

Wilson has similar feelings.

"More than anything, I want people to think anything on this scale, whether verbal or physical, should never happen again," he said.

Wilson believes the play was a learning experience for those who saw it.

"I think even people who see themselves as great GLBT people can learn something from this," he said.

Jaclyn Baker can be reached at .

Steven Higgs also contributed to this story. He can be reached at .