LARAMIE, Wyo. — When you’re a lesbian from San Francisco, it’s a little hard not to stick out in a town like Laramie, Wyo., where the entire populace was recently immersed in gaydar lessons. Especially when you’re there to interview the lesbian band known as the Indigo Girls.
I like to think of myself as open-minded and resistant to stereotypes, but I had subconsciously put up all my guards against rednecks and bigots on my flight there, as if I’d run into an unusual number of them. I rolled into town thinking the brutal 1998 murder of local gay college student Matthew Shepard was about homophobia, and I was taking it personally.
I now think I was wrong. The real bitterness in this town seems to have more to do with deepening class divisions than with bigotry.
In the hotel bar, I got to chatting with the bartender, John Morris. We shot the bull awhile, then the conversation — as most of my discussions here eventually did — came around to the subject of the Shepard murder, the trials and convictions of his killers Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, and the aftershocks in this tiny Western town.
“Things are calming down,” Morris said. “The Hendersons were in here the other day. Nice people. Couple a days before that, the Shepards were in here. They’ve got their own publicist now,” he added, subtly raising his eyebrows.
The Shepard family and the Henderson family didn’t share the same social status, even before the murder. Now the Shepards, who lost a son tragically and brutally, are famous — with a New York publicist no less — and consoled by millions around the world. The Hendersons and the McKinneys, who have also lost their children in a sense, have been vilified by the media and the populace.
The Hendersons and the McKinneys are not rich, but neither are they destitute — they’re what Morris and other locals I ran into called with affection “white trash” — but now they are socially bankrupt, too. There seemed to be empathy for these families among those I met in Laramie, and the more I talked to them, the more I saw their point.
It isn’t that Morris or the other people I met in town are from the wrong side of the tracks. Most of them are college students studying at the University of Wyoming, as Shepard had, or people with families who escaped the city — Boulder, Colo. and Denver, mostly — for something slower and saner. They are educated, liberal, and well-employed. A number of them are obviously openly gay, here in this town where we are led to believe that such an image alone can get you killed.
No, these Laramites aren’t bigots. At least not most of them. Of course, says Morris, there are as many assholes per capita here as you’d find in any town, large or small. But the socioeconomic divide is perhaps especially apparent here, and the anger it breeds runs deep and just below the town’s slow-and-easy facade.
In this town, you either make a living through the college, or you work manual labor. Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney were from that class of people which doesn’t have the money or the hope to expect anything better than steady work in carpentry, and which doesn’t bother making its kids finish public school, because once they can count the nails, they pretty much have the knowledge they need to live up to anyone’s expectations.
This town has a rugged Western feel, to be certain, but it is more of a quaint leftover than a way of life. Locals who remember when it was a rough-and-tumble, blue-collar ranching and rail town chafe at the touchy-feely culture that’s coming here in the backpacks of out-of-state students and the SUVs of the rich corporate types moving here from the big cities.
The class divide here is widening as it is across the country, and that is gradually eroding perhaps the most definitive frontier trait: pride. The men who work in the mills aren’t doing well enough to land the SUVs and the cellular phones that their suburban neighbors have. And although those with polite Western manners would surely die before observing the inequities publicly, you can be sure their husbands and sons are slowly boiling at home.
Henderson and McKinney were probably bitter, and perhaps especially so toward the pale and slight Shepard who was the kind of well-off, educated, upper-middle class young person that modern-day Laramie’s geography, economy, and university attracts. No one would mistake Shepard for a manual laborer, and that alone set him apart. He was emblematic of the vast crevasse between the classes; between what Henderson and McKinney could even dream and what the Shepards could take for granted.
Perhaps a tough kid from Wyoming has an easier time laying blame for his violent anger on a faggot than on fate.
And there is perhaps no more marginalized group today than the poor. Poverty is for losers, for the lazy, for the stupid. The Internet economy has taught us that wealth is easy. Our “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” culture has no patience for the lower class. We blame them for their station, in much the same way gay-bashers blame homosexuals for their lifestyle “choice,” and rapists blame their victims for wearing short skirts.
The gay establishment also found it easier to make Shepard’s murder a matter of anti-gay hate. Gay leaders exploited the murder, albeit for a good cause, in pushing for passage of the federal hate-crimes law. That the gay leadership — most of it upper-middle class, white, male, and well-educated — missed the real social catalyst behind the crime isn’t surprising. The only group of people that dislikes examining economic disparity less than the have-nots is the haves. It’s easier for us rich white gayfolk, especially, to cast ourselves as the disenfranchised than as the disenfranchisers. Guilt is just too messy.
So instead of setting the stage for a frank discussion of the class divisions in that community and around the country, the Shepard murder was co-opted by a nation of activists who’d never set foot in Laramie, and who leapt to conclusions about the motivations behind the crime. The people in Laramie feel robbed. They should.