Several years ago, the Albany High School Drama Club chose to perform The Laramie Project as their fall play. For those not familiar with the play, it explores the final days in the life of Matthew Shepherd, the 21-year-old gay college student murdered by two other 21-year-old men in Laramie, Wyoming in October 1998 because of his sexual orientation. While the spring musical regularly sells out, the fall play never comes close to filling the auditorium. The Laramie Project was the exception, with tickets selling out at the speed of the ever-popular musicals and thoughtful discussions attended by students, faculty, parents, and community members following each performance. I was never prouder of my city and its high school than at that time.
Those who have seen or read The Laramie Project will find much that is familiar in Lesléa Newman’s verse novel October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepherd, published this month by Candlewick, But while the play is based on interviews with Laramie residents and testimony during the murder trial of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, Newman’s novel gives voice to the inanimate objects—such as the fencepost to which the battered young man was tied for 18 hours (“I held him all night long / He was heavy as a broken heart”)—and the creatures who may have witnessed his lonely suffering—deer, birds, and small animals. While Newman also includes fictionalized musings of Shepherd himself, as well as the bartender who was the last person who saw him, the two murderers, their girlfriends, and Shepherd’s parents and friends, the non-human witnesses are perhaps the most powerful. They testify eloquently to the young man’s loneliness and suffering, and they express bewilderment at the peculiar cruelty of the human animal.
Equally powerful is Newman’s own story. A prominent LGBTQ rights activist and the author of the ground-breaking picture book Heather Has Two Mommies, published in 1989, she was slated to speak as part of the University of Wyoming’s Gay Pride Week in mid-October, 1998. She arrived in Laramie just hours after Shepherd’s death. She recounts her decision to go ahead with her speech and the reaction she received from the university’s embattled LGBTQ community, now further shaken by the horrific murder of one of their own.