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My Laramie Project
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January 2, 2002 I am visiting my sister and her family in Fort Collins, Colorado. I drove here from Oakland, California, and on the way I noticed the exit for Laramie, Wyoming, just 60 miles or so north of my sister's new home. Laramie. Infamous site of the 1998 torture and murder of openly gay college student Matthew Shepard. I know that I'll be heading back tomorrow, and so I vow to take advantage of this spooky locale and explore what I can. I'm up very late doing research on the Internet to avoid uncomfortable questions from my brilliant and precocious 7-year-old niece. I Google it; among scores of hits find an article in salon.com, a site with the details of the abduction and subsequent events, and a disturbing homophobic site or two.
The Geocities site is rich with information. Location of the crime: Sherman Hills neighborhood, east of Laramie, split-rail fence on Snowy Mountain Road. Gay bar where Kinney and Henderson abducted Shepard: Fireside Lounge, Laramie, Wyo. Place and time of death: Poudre Valley Hospital in Ft. Collins, 12:53 a.m., Monday, Oct. 12, 1998. WHAT?? Fort Collins? Poudre Valley Hospital?? That's the hospital not two miles from here, where my niece had gone after she had gotten her arm stuck in a pool drainage pipe and had to have the pipe cut from her swollen hand. I had waited on edge there, a nervous, worried uncle who just happened to be visiting when this none-too-small trauma unfolded.
I read on, fascinated, only to learn that in the days after the first news of Shepard's attack, college students had ridden "atop a homecoming float that featured a scarecrow figure designed to resemble Matthew's battered body. The figure was wearing a sign that said 'I'm gay.' An obscene message was painted across the back of the scarecrow's shirt." The article continued, seeking not to come down too heavily on the students, "The students didn't mean to be insensitive. It was supposed to be a joke. They were just ordinary, average guys, having a bit of fun." The location of those "ordinary, average" college students? Colorado State University, right here in Fort Collins.
I had been working at my first Internet startup in the fall of 1998 when the news of the hate crime captivated us all. First, there was the horribleness of the incident and then, only 5 days later, the unexpected, disappointing, terribly sad news of Shepard's passing. I had never known this guy, and yet, I do remember that at one point, in private, I cried for what his loss meant.
And now, by pure serendipity I find myself with the time and the opportunity to look farther into this infamous crime. I'm here with my car and a camera. Perhaps I can gather some until-now-undiscovered insight into this horror; some tidbit that somehow might add hopeful meaning to it all?
After saying goodbye to my sister and nieces I hit the road for Laramie. I leave in mid-afternoon, so that I can arrive before sunset and have a quick look around town and find a hotel to use as my base of operations from which to do my investigative journalism. Granted, I've never done any investigative journalism. I've never been trained in such an undertaking, and I probably don't have the natural extroversion and assertiveness necessary for the task. But how hard could it be?
The roads are covered with about 8 inches of snow, and my car slips and slides a bit while I slowly track through the main roads leading to the University of Wyoming, the school Shepard had attended. Visibility is low, and I don't see anything that might pass for a gay bar. My notes tell me to look for a place called "The Fireside Lounge." The campus seems more or less deserted, I supposed because they're in the middle of their winter break. So I'm off to find a hotel to set up my HQ.
It's 7:00 way too early to go out, and I'm a bit tired anyway, so I have a brief nap and order a pizza while I consider my plans. The pizza is good, if a bit oily. I find "Fireside Lounge" in the phonebook and get its address. I will call a bit later, after the staff presumably would have arrived, and see if I can get directions to the bar. Perhaps there will be some kind of memorial to Shepard in the bar. Surely there will be people who will have known him personally. I imagine walking into the bar, making my way through the crowded dance floor filled with vibrant young gay college bodies and take a seat at the bar. I'll order a crème-de-menthe, green, but they won't have it, so I'll settle for a Corona. I'm a lightweight, so I won't want to drink more than about two-thirds of the bottle, but my sipping will go plenty slowly enough as I casually eye the crowd. I'll notice a handsome young man in a flannel shirt who seems to have noticed me. Under normal circumstances, I'd be far too shy to break the ice, but this is journalism, and so I'll wave to him. He'll turn around.
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