Friday, April 09, 2010

In Defense of the Laramie Project

The Tyler Civic Theatre of Tyler, TX apparently planned to produce The Laramie Project, inspired by the life and death of gay university student Matthew Shepherd from information gathered in interviews after Shepherd's death.

Of course, as is too often the case, Religion proves to be the enemy of tolerance and compassion, and the nasty voices of homophobia have been raised in protest against the production, and the theatre's board has reportedly been considering pulling their support for the production.

In response, I sent TCT the following letter today -

To the leadership of Tyler Civic Theatre:

I am originally from Texarkana, AR. I earned my BA from a small, liberal arts university in Arkadelphia, AR. I lived for 10 years in Dallas, and while living in Dallas worked in Dallas, Waco, Longview, and Fort Worth. I spent a total of 34 years in Arkansas and Texas, about 20 of those years in the “ArkLaTex” area (which includes Tyler). So, I am familiar with the area, the attitudes, the social location. I write not as a judgmental outsider, but as a native of the area (though for some 9 years now I have lived on the East Coast…Maryland, New York, Florida).

I want to say as a Gay man, I found Southwest Arkansas/Northeast Texas to be, well, unfriendly. It was a place where prejudices (religious prejudices, racism, sexism, homophobia, distrust of immigrants, etc.) were abundant and often lifted to the level of civic pride and religious values! Hatred and fear of the “Other” is normative in the rural South and Midwest and while that may make those in the majority feel a bit safer or even superior, it can make the “Other” feel quite unwelcome and unsafe.

As a gay person growing up in that area, I found my salvation in the arts (no surprise there!). The freedom of the stage and screen allowed me to be exposed to ideas beyond the provincialism of my small town. I learned from film, television, and theatre (and glorious books) that the world was bigger than my limited experience of it and that somewhere in the world there was a place for people like me. I am so thankful for the entertainment media that provided me knowledge of a life and a world beyond the fears and prejudices and limited experiences of my community. Because of courageous artists, even in local and often repressive environments, I have spent almost 2 decades living in urban areas, I have earned two masters degrees and a doctorate degree, I am now a published writer, and I even have a profoundly spiritual life (in fact, my “job” is as the spiritual leader of a 600+ member progressive church).

Why do I imagine that you would care in the slightest about my personal biography? Because I find it heart-breaking that your theatre has both demonstrated the courage to produce the Laramie Project and the cowardice to consider changing those plans.

What if you actually do go through with the production?
Will self-righteous, narrow-minded, fearful people object? Almost certainly.
Will they refuse to come? Probably.
Will they boycott and protest? Possibly.
Will you emerge with your courage and integrity in tact, a strong voice for artistic freedom and the diversity of ideas and experiences? Yes indeed!!!

And what’s more…I can promise you that somewhere in your audience there will be a struggling same-gender loving person, or a parent of a gay or lesbian person who is also struggling against the fears and hatreds of local society, who will be strengthened and encouraged because of your production. Isn’t that worth more than all the hate-speech that will come your way? In fact, such hate speech is what dehumanizes gay people to the point that a Matthew Shepherd can be brutally slain in his youth. Such fear and hatred of the Other is why poor Matthew only lives in story, film, and stage productions today. You have a chance to stand up to the very forces that killed Matthew Shepherd…by simply not letting them dictate your decisions.

It is my hope that you will produce this play, that it will be well attended, that at least one life will be positively changed as a result, and that I can say with pride that I come from an area where at least the arts are willing to pay tribute to the beauty of all souls and the power of the indomitable human spirit.

Rev. Durrell Watkins, MA, MDiv, DMin

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