TOBIN: When was the first time you realized gay people existed?
VOX 1: Ummm, I don’t know...
VOX 2: I think when I first moved to the West Village...
VOX 3: When did the movie the Birdcage come out?
VOX 4: I think I always knew. I don’t remember it being a revelation. It just was sort of a fact of life.
VOX 1: The first parade was right underneath my window on west 4th street, and I thought, “Wow, who are these people? They’re great!
VOX: From WNYC Studios, this is Nancy!
VOX: With your hosts, Tobin Low and Kathy Tu.
[THEME MUSIC ENDS]
TOBIN: So Kathy.
TOBIN: This month is the 20th anniversary of one of the the biggest gay news stories of our lives.
[CLIP] THE TODAY SHOW: And welcome to Today on this Monday morning everyone I'm Katie Couric. I'm Ann Curry. Good morning everybody. A terrible turn in a terrible story... It's really tragic and so disturbing, Ann.
TOBIN: In October of 1998, a young gay man made national news.
[CLIP] THE TODAY SHOW: Matthew Shepard was last weekend tied to a wooden fence by two men who met Shepard in a bar in Laramie Wyoming. Eighteen hours later a passing bicyclist summoned help after almost mistaking Shepard’s bloody body for a scarecrow.
MATT: I think this is the first really big gay story I remember following.
TOBIN: Nancy producer Matt Collette.
MATT: I guess Ellen came out the year before, but somehow I seem to have missed that when I was a kid. But this story, it was everywhere.
NEWS: Shepard remained on life support at a Colorado hospital until this morning when he passed away. A hospital spokesman said Shepard's family is grateful for support from around the world.
HOSPITAL SPOX: They said that he came into the world premature and he left the world premature.
ELLEN DEGENERES: It just hit me why I am so devastated by it it's because this is what I was trying to stop. This is exactly why I did what I did.
BILL CLINTON: While it wouldn't be proper for me to comment on the specifics of this case I do want to say again: crimes of hate and crimes of violence cannot be tolerated in our country.
MOISES: You couldn't open a newspaper without seeing something about Matthew. You couldn't turn on the radio or the TV or the Internet. It was everywhere. And the big question that was posited was why this one? And why now.
MATT: This is playwright and director Moises Kaufman. He’s part of the Tectonic Theater Company in New York, and after Matthew’s death he started thinking about how a play might be able to take a wider look at the impact of this crime.
MOISES: Going to Laramie and talking to the people of the town was interesting because we thought, "Oh we might be able to get a document, a transcript, of how people are thinking and feeling, not only about homosexuality but about class and education and the church and religion and politics.” So this idea, this desire to do an x-ray of the zeitgeist of that time at the end of the millennium became our driving force.
MATT: Matthew’s death was hardly the only hate crime that happened in America that year. But Moises was struck by how this particular murder seemed to finally penetrate the mainstream consciousness. And he thought that by looking close at this one place, he could get a better understanding of why it captivated an entire nation.
MOISES: A big influence for us when we were writing the play was Our Town by Thornton Wilder. And you know, what we tried to do was try to talk about "What was the social contract in Laramie like? How did people cohabit and coexist?" And to me those questions are pertinent regardless of the murder. I want to believe that one of the reasons the play continues to be relevant is because it speaks of how do we live together and how do we survive one another.
MATT: So Moises and his team went to Wyoming several times over about a year and did interviews with more than 200 people in Laramie. They talked to people there about how Matthew Shepard's death changed their lives -- often in unexpected, indirect ways. And they were there in the courtroom when the two young men who attacked Matthew were convicted and sentenced. Moises and the Tectonic team eventually turned those interviews into a play called The Laramie Project.
MOISES: You know what's been astonishing is that for the better part of the last 20 years it has -- it continues to be one of the most performed plays in America.
[CLIP] HBO’S THE LARAMIE PROJECT: If you asked me before I would have told you, you know, Laramie is a beautiful town. Secluded, you know - secluded enough so you can have your own identity. You know now, after Matthew, you know, we’re a town defined by an accident or a crime. We’ve become Waco, or Jasper. We’re a noun, or a definition, or a sign.
MATT: The Laramie Project ran in New York and also became a film, which Moises directed for HBO. It tells the stories of those directly affected - Matthew’s friends, classmates, and people like the police and hospital workers who treated him before he died. But it also highlights people with big, complicated feelings - especially how so many struggled to weigh their own disagreements with homosexuality against the violence Matthew suffered. All the dialogue comes from interviews with the people of Laramie. Adapted verbatim for the stage. Matthew's voice is, of course, absent. And there's another notable absence in the play -- although we hear from Matthew's father, we never do hear from his mom.
MOISES: The first time that we saw Judy Shepard, I think was at the trial of the first perpetrator and we saw each other at the trials, at both trials, for day after day after day after day, she could see us. But we never spoke to her.
MATT: At one of the sentencing hearings, Matthew’s father Dennis read a statement to the court. But his mom, Judy, stayed silent in her seat. She also never spoke to the press. Not only was she grieving, she was also known for being painfully shy.
MOISES: And then when the play was about to open in Denver I called her and I said "I have a copy of the script, and again it's not about Matthew but it mentions Matthew and I would like to give it to you to see if there's anything that we got wrong, if there's any, you know..." And so she said thank you, she got the play, and she called me back, and she said that nothing that you said about Matthew was incorrect, thank you for doing this, this is a play that I will never see in my life.
[HBO score enters]
JUDY: Well the first time I saw any of it was when HBO did their version that they filmed in Laramie.
[CLIP] HBO’S THE LARAMIE PROJECT: In Laramie Wyoming a young man is in a deep coma, near death, from a savage beating.
JUDY: And I was turning channels on my TV and I saw it start
[CLIP] HBO’S THE LARAMIE PROJECT: When I first found out, I just thought it was horrible. Nobody deserves that. I don't care who you are.
JUDY: I think because it was filmed in Laramie it was like I couldn't stop watching it. The part that is the hardest for me and I think the most beautiful part of the play is when Dennis is reading his court statement at the end.
[CLIP] HBO’S THE LARAMIE PROJECT: My son Matthew did not look like a winner. He was rather uncoordinated and wore braces from the age of 13 until the day he died.
JUDY: Takes me right back to the courtroom, it's just really hard to watch
[CLIP] HBO’S THE LARAMIE PROJECT: Matt's beating, hospitalization and funeral focus worldwide attention on hate. Good is coming out of evil. People have said enough is enough. I miss my son but I'm proud to be able to say that he was my son.
MATT: When did you realize that this was -- that the magnitude of this of Matthews.. Of Matthew's death and how much it resonated with the country? Was it something that was sort of immediately apparent to you or did it take some time to set in?
JUDY: You know I'm not sure it still has. I think if I if I examined the magnitude as you call it I might be paralyzed. I'm not really sure but we received so much correspondence that we understood it touched a lot of people in many different ways and the fact that we didn't get hardly any hate mail was the biggest surprise to me. I thought all the publicity that this is getting, actually talking about the gay community as human beings which was kind of unusual at the time, that we might get a lot of hate mail and we just didn't it was all support and love and sympathy and empathy and people telling us their stories. But I'm not really sure that even today we understand how big the story really was. I don’t know that I want to know how big it is.
MATT: There are so many ways people can learn Matt’s story now, whether just as history or through the play and I wonder - regardless of the form, I wonder, what do you want people to take away from Matt’s story?
JUDY: Well the one thing that stands out for me and I hope everyone realizes it is when we start talking about minorities and people of color and immigrants and people who don't perhaps look like us or talk like us or come from where we do that if you remove Matts sexuality from the play and insert immigrant or color or national origin or any of those things it's exactly the same story. This is a universal case of bigotry and discrimination and personal bias. It could be against anyone not just someone from the gay community. And I hope that they understand that that's really the universal message of this story.
MATT: The play highlights this Wyoming of 1998, and by extension sort of America of 1998, and I mean what have you seen change in Wyoming since 98? you know how have you seen neighbors the community conversations change in the last 20 years?
JUDY: It's hard to be different in any way in Wyoming. But you have to understand Wyoming is only 500,000 people in the state. The demographics are 96 percent white. There's just practically no diversity there. So just the very lack of population makes it really difficult for change.There are many gay folks who live in Wyoming but there's really no place for them to gather that shows any kind of number like there's no gay bars in Wyoming but that's not because it would be unwelcome it’s because there's not a population base to support it. Of what I am aware and hear about from others about the gay community in Wyoming and different locales is it is thriving and growing and accepted. Politically we're very behind the times. Very red state anti everything pretty much. I see my neighbors more accepting. When I used to go grocery shopping. People would come up to me and touch my arm and whisper to me thank you for your work. I have a gay nephew grandson. You know whatever. And now they don't whisper to me anymore. They say it out loud. So that's progress right. I think that’s progress.
MATT: Yeah. Where were you on this spectrum of acceptance when Matt first came out to you?
JUDY: In the beginning when Matt came out to us we were all all of us totally accepting. Maybe we already knew. You know I'm not really sure. I had many gay friends in college. So this was not anything new to me. Dennis I don't know that never crossed his mind one way or the other. But what we did understand was Matt was our son primarily. That was the thing. he happened to be gay. Logan happens to be straight. It doesn’t really matter. We definitely are on the pro side but I'll Add to that we didn't really know anything about the struggle the gay community per se was having either because we lived in Wyoming. So you know the notion that we knew anything about what was happening in the community beyond what everybody else knew just we just didn't we just didn't.
MATT: So you don't speak at all in the play, but there's this one moment when we do sort of hear from you. It’s when a hospital spokesperson comes out to brief the national media and he reads a statement you wrote.
[CLIP] HBO’S THE LARAMIE PROJECT: Go home, give your kids a hug, and don’t let a day go by without telling them that you love them.
MATT: And it’s such a simple but powerful message, and I wonder where did it come from?
JUDY: Well we had just lost Matt and I... Crap, I’m sorry. We had received such an outpouring of support and love from everybody and the hospital staff was brilliant. And you know the the emails that were coming in the cards and flowers and all that stuff that we were told about we never did actually see cause there's just so much of it. The protests that happened outside the hospital the vigils and of the ones we didn't read about it just seemed like a seminal moment where we we frequently leave our loved ones without telling them how much we love them and you never know when it's going to be over. And I just wanted people to realize really how short life can be.
MATT: How do you think these past 20 years have changed you? Like what’s that evolution been like?
JUDY: Well if you knew me before this happened you would be amazed at what I'm doing now. My friends. There's like the Judy before and then there's the Judy after. I am an introvert by nature -- off the scale. So to do this work took some took some uh, practice work, talking to other people trying to figure out exactly how I was going to use the voice I had for whatever limited amount of time I had and try to make the most of it. So it’s just.. we just had to figure out how to do it.
JUDY: And I won't say it's been easy. It's been an experience, a very steep learning curve experience. I've learned more about myself in this time period than I probably ever wanted to know. I can be the old me when I go home. And the new me when I'm with folks because they need me to be the new me when I'm with them.
JUDY: That's fine. That's cool I get that. And I can do that for a while. But this is, this is hard for me. Dennis is far more the extrovert.
JUDY: You know, get out there and say things but he sometimes says things he shouldn't say and now that he's retired we travel together which is really great because he's really good at some of it and I'm better at other parts of it so it's really good but it's been a learning experience and I have learned and gained so much from it.
MATT: Judy is now president of the Matthew Shepard Foundation. She has become one of the most prominent advocates for hate crime legislation.
[CLIP] THE ELLEN DEGENERES SHOW:
ELLEN: So you have been trying to get this attention and tell people what we found out right before you walked out.
JUDY: Yeah, we just found out that part of the the bill that will increase existing hate crime laws and now protects sexual orientation, gender, disability, has been passed on the house floor and will be going to the Senate.
MATT: And in 2016, she weighed in on the national election...
[CLIP] JUDY: Words have an influence, violence causes pain, hate can rip us apart. I know what can happen as the result of hate, and Donald Trump should never be our president.
MATT: And now, two years into the Trump presidency, she’s more vocal than ever.
JUDY: We have to elect officials who understand what America is, really is and not what it was in the 50s. This is not the same place. We don't look the same. We don't think the same as we did Then. we have come so far in the realm of civil rights and acceptance of each other and it's just breaking my heart to see us turning back to the past. It's just it's awful. So my action plan is this. Y'all have to really pay attention to the candidates. You have to register to vote and you really have to vote. You have to take the step to do it. y'all just have to be involved. You have a voice. Please use it. This is not the time to retreat. This is not the time to talk softly. Be loud, be out, be proud. Don't give up. Run for office. I'm worried for everyone who's not a straight white christian man. So, this is the time to take action not the time to retreat.
KATHY: After the break, we stop by rehearsals for a star-studded performance of The Laramie Project and talk to one of the performers: Samira Wiley.
TOBIN: Nancy will be back in a minute
TOBIN: As Matt mentioned, it's the 20th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death. And there are events all over the country, including here in New York. Recently, there was an all-star reading of The Laramie Project.
KATHY: The whole thing was a fundraiser for the Matthew Shepard Foundation and the Tectonic Theater Project. And it starred people like Asia Kate Dillon, Adam Rippon, and one of my favorite actors today, Samira Wiley.
TOBIN: Samira is best known for her work in TV, where she’s played Poussey in Orange is the New Black, and she was Moira in The Handmaid’s Tale.
KATHY: In this production, Samira played Romaine Patterson, a friend of Matthew who’s probably best known as the person who created the Angel Wings. They’re these big wings made from white sheets and plastic pipes that were designed to shield the Shepard family from protests by Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church.
[CLIP] SAMIRA WILEY AS ROMAINE PATTERSON: So this big ass band of angels comes in and we don’t say a fucking word. We just turn our backs and we just stand there. And we’re a group of people bring forth a message of peace, of love, and compassion. And we are calling it Angel Action. Yeah! This 21-year-old little lesbian is ready to walk the line with him.
KATHY: Those same angel wings are still used today to counter hateful protests across the country. Most recently they were handed off to the LGBT Center in Orlando after the Pulse shooting.
TOBIN: We talked to Samira in a rehearsal room at Lincoln Center, and we asked her if the play feels dated... or maybe prescient?
SAMIRA: Maybe both. Maybe both. It does have me questioning about like where we were then where we are now and the question of progress and what have we made and what do we still need to go and have we done it- all of those questions.
KATHY: The part that's sort of like it's not dated still relevant now, is that scary?
SAMIRA: Yes but life is scary as shit.
TOBIN & KATHY: [LAUGH]
SAMIRA: I mean I think basically like anything about life is kind of scary, just in human history like it seems like we we over and over and over again we hurt each other and we don't know how to sort of get out of this cycle. But then there's this cycle of trying to repair that and trying to understand how to relate to someone in a way that is not, not harmful. So it does I guess make me a little wary about what progress are we making but it also makes me think of like OK well we're not crazy. You know what I mean? this is just Like who humans are and as humans we have to push through this and that is where I think the art comes in is to try to put a salve on our wounds.
TOBIN: So you're involved in this project. You're also very well known for playing Poussey on Orange is the New Black and Moira on The Handmaid's Tale. you're involved in a lot of projects that talk about awareness and several of them where you play a queer character. Is that intentional in your career to seek out these roles where you can be sort of exploring queerness?
SAMIRA: It's absolutely not.
SAMIRA: You think I'm joking but it really isn't. I am a strong believer of whatever is supposed to happen will happen. I think that if I wasn't portraying these characters I wonder how my own journey with my own sexual orientation, how I would embrace that how I would walk through the world if I wasn't being able if I wasn't able to inhabit the characters that I have been. It's not a choice but I'm very very happy that it's worked out this way.
TOBIN: How do you think it would be different if you hadn't played these roles. Your journey?
SAMIRA: Well I know I definitely had some ideas in the beginning of my career of like what I could do and what I couldn't do because of who I am. And one of the things that I couldn't do, in that whatever spreadsheet I had, was I can do this once, you know what I mean. But like if I do a couple of times, if I play gay twice you know then then I'm that and I'm typecast and I don't want to do whatever whatever whatever. But I have been able to hopefully, In Poussey and in Moira, two completely different complex you know characters that are both Black gay women but are completely different from each other and I think that that's important to be able to show how multifaceted we all are. And I think that those things helped me embrace all the facets of myself.
KATHY: When you were playing Poussey where, to what degree were you out?
SAMIRA: Uhhh...we talking first season or fourth season?
KATHY: There’s a difference?
SAMIRA: No yeah there's definitely a difference for sure for sure for sure. Absolutely. I think first season I wasn't out at all. I mean I think that I mean by fourth season I was like hey come give me your pussy...
SAMIRA: But in the beginning I mean I was playing a gay character like I said from the beginning, or I had always thought of her in that way. And there was a someone from my cast actually they were like doing an interview and they like were talking about out gay actors in the cast and they mentioned my name and I saw it in print and I cried. I cried a lot and I like tried to get it taken down...and like look I had a journey you guys. I was not always just like super open-hearted like a gay...gaymo.
KATHY: Gaymo, love that.
SAMIRA: Yeah yeah. And also like that I mean more specifically that's something that somebody took from me. You know what I mean. it's it's you know everyone's journey is their own you should be able to come out on your own terms. So that was probably a little deeper than you know than just...But no I wasn't I wasn't out in the beginning and I think falling in love with Poussey which is a real thing that happened to me helped me fall in love with myself as well.
KATHY: The rest of the world also fell in love with Poussey and you.
SAMIRA: She’s got a great smile, right?
TOBIN: It's interesting to hear you talk about sort of falling into the not falling but like ending up playing these like out queer roles especially because there's like a lot of conversation right now about if cishet actors can play queer roles.
TOBIN: And I wonder like what you think about that conversation if there's like a side that you fall on.
SAMIRA: I think that as long as we’re having the exact same opportunities on our side in terms of I want queer people and trans people to be able to have all the opportunities to play cis people. If it's equal then sure. But I do think that right now it is not equal and because it is not equal, it is very important that we tell our own stories. And maybe we can get to a place where we're all telling everybody's story. But our experience as queer people in this in this world in this country is a very singular thing.
TOBIN: Can I ask a dumb side question?
TOBIN: I remember reading an interview once where you said, I think the interviewer asked like whose career you would want to emulate. And your answer, which I'm obsessed with, was Regina King.
SAMIRA: Regina King. Regina King.
TOBIN: How are you tracking on your Regina King dreams and goals?
SAMIRA: Look, we won an Emmy on the same weekend!
SAMIRA: Look, I was backstage when she came back there with her Emmy and I was like “you go sis! I don’t even know if you remember me but I love you.” Well okay, I think things are going well. I just got to give me a Boondocks series, voicing both of the characters and then I'll think I'll be on King status. Yeah that's what we'll call it now, King status.
KATHY: Amazing. So for the next season The Handmaid's Tale…
SAMIRA: You got it, go ahead.
KATHY: What is happening to Moira?
SAMIRA: Uh, today in my email I have, it’s a great day, because I just received the first two scripts of Season 3. So if you hacked into my phone you can maybe find out.
KATHY: Have you read it?
SAMIRA: No. I just got them. They just got emailed.
KATHY: Oh my god. Scripts have arrived you guys.
[CREDIT MUSIC STARTS]
TOBIN: All right, that's our show. But before we go, we're still looking for your stories for our "I've Been Meaning To Tell You..." project.
KATHY: It can be something funny, sad, confusing, anything really that you've been meaning to talk to someone about. Go to nancypodcast.org/tell to get started.
KATHY: Our producer...
TOBIN: Matt Collette!
TOBIN: Jenny Lawton!
KATHY: Sound Designer...
TOBIN: Jeremy Bloom!
KATHY: Executive Producer...
TOBIN: Paula Szuchman!
KATHY: I’m Kathy Tu.
TOBIN: I’m Tobin Low.
KATHY: And Nancy is a production of WNYC Studios.
TOBIN: Fun fact: I also went to Juilliard and I think we were maybe there at the same time.
SAMIRA: Oh really? What year did you leave? What years were you there?
TOBIN: ‘09 to ‘11?
SAMIRA: Yes yes. I was there in ‘09.
TOBIN: So, my question is I remember whenever I was with like actors in the elevator there was a lot of dialect work happening.
TOBIN: Do you have a fun accent that you can still do.
SAMIRA: Well I just finished a play in Williamstown where I worked on a Xhosa dialect which is South African. I’m trying to think of something from the play. [In dialect] Let me tell you how to pick up a woman. You walk up to her, like this. You do with your eyes, like this you see. You say to her, “mama…” Okay that’s where we’re gonna stop.
SAMIRA: I’m not gonna tell you how to actually pick her up.
KATHY: I would like to know though.