Laramie, Granite Bay

High-school students in conservative, religious Placer County tackle Matthew Shepard’s story

Even though he was savagely beaten to death 16 years ago for being gay, I’ve been thinking a lot about Matthew Shepard lately. If you don’t know about his tragic story, go ahead and Wiki it. I’ll wait.

His was a touchstone story in my life, and it brought me to tears at the time—one of a handful of moments a news story about a stranger has done this. I have driven through Wyoming once, and it was pretty much the only thing that came to mind, besides the wild beauty. I will never look at a prairie-style “buck fence” without thinking of Shepard tied to one while his life drained away.

The biggest reason he’s been in my thoughts is because the sister of a friend, Zeina Barkawi—who went to boarding school with Shepard—is the producer of a new documentary Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine. I can’t recommend it enough. It is a beautiful tribute, and one that caused me to bring an image of Shepard smiling to my head as readily as the image of him crucified on a fence. That movie made me fully lose it, and as a nonparent, it’s the closest I have ever come to feeling what it would be like to lose a child.

That same friend invited me to a performance of a well-known play about Shepard titled The Laramie Project. The unusual thing about this particular performance was that it was being done at Granite Bay High School, which is located in a conservative, religious community.

Sadly, this theatrical run, which ended on February 8, became briefly famous because of a tweet by Fred Phelps Jr., stating that the hate-mongering Westboro Baptist Church was planning to picket it. These are the same ogres who picketed Shepard’s funeral, brandishing their infamous “god hates fags” signs.

The student director of the Granite Bay production, Alexa Zogopoulos, a poised and polished 17-year-old, said that the threat of a protest actually helped garner support in the community. Some parents had initially been vocal about their reservations, but after that tweet, none wanted to be associated with the hateful church. Only one Phelps-related protestor came “for about 20 minutes,” she said, and a Sacramento LGBT group sent 150 counterprotesters, which co-director Perry Vargas said was a “beautiful moment.”

After the stirring, accomplished performance of this challenging play—in which 14 actors took on almost 50 roles, Zogopoulos said that all three student directors brought the idea to their theater teacher because they felt the play was “bigger than us.”

At my small-town high school in the early ’90s, there was not a single out student, and those suspected of being gay were targets for bullying. Twenty years have made a difference, thankfully: Both directors said that not only do they have some out students, there is also a Gay-Straight Alliance club on campus—although they said that the production has been a target of stray comments, and that “gay slurs get thrown around” occasionally.

The last scene of The Laramie Project is Matthew’s father Dennis Shepard’s eloquent speech, word for word, which he gave in court after his son’s death, explaining why his family had decided to spare his murderers’ lives. As the young actor recited those heart-wrenching words, many in the audience wiped away tears.

Perhaps that’s the best tribute to Matthew Shepard of all.