This past week, I was surprised to learn that October 6th will mark the fifteen year anniversary of the murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming. I performed in a production of The Laramie Project in high school, and this story has held my interest for the past five years. I was reading various articles about the tragedy when I came across a story that at the very least can be described as quite disturbing. During a performance of The Laramie Project at the University of Mississippi, a group of students (including about 20 football players at the school) allegedly disrupted the show with inappropriate laughter, talking, and name-calling directed at the cast and the characters they were portraying. The name calling allegedly included insults of a homophobic nature. The group of players were apparently among those required to attend for a freshman theatre course.
The incident came to light in a front page article in The Daily Mississippian a few days after the performance. As Mississippian writer Adam Ganucheau reports,
“According to the play’s director and theater faculty member Rory Ledbetter, some audience members used derogatory slurs like ‘fag’ and heckled both cast members and the characters they were portraying for their body types and sexual orientations. Ledbetter said the audience’s reactions included ‘borderline hate speech.’”
Ledbetter went on to say that the football players “were definitely the ones who seemed to initiate others in the audience to say things, too. It seemed like the didn’t know that they were representing the university when they were doing these things.”
While continuing to read more and more into what transpired in that theatre Tuesday night, I became increasingly upset with every detail that I learned about. The fact that students attending a performance by their peers could show such utter disrespect was absolutely astounding to me. Of course actors deal with distracting audience members all of the time, but this incident appears not to stem from simple rudeness, but rather from ignorance and hate. The subject matter of the show and the upcoming anniversary of Matthew’s brutal murder makes this incident all the more insulting. Through their incredibly hurtful and ignorant behavior, these students disrespected not only the students onstage, but also the memory of the young man who the play is based on.
Although one of the football players apparently apologized for the actions of his teammates, I sincerely hope that the University of Mississippi takes this opportunity to do more than give out punishments, but rather attempt to get to the bottom of why these young people thought it was okay to behave the way that they did. While some may perceive this behavior as harmless, they fail to realize that this kind of thinking is the first step towards tragedies such as Matthew’s murder. As Matthew’s mother, Judy, said after she learned of this recent incident, “It’s not too many steps – what happened in that auditorium – from what happened to Matthew Shepard.”