This is what you might expect to see in a documentary by a lesbian filmmaker about the aftermath of the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo.: an angry, frustrated collage of images in which Laramie's frightened gay population creeps even deeper into the closet, while the local gun-toting rednecks strut around their trailers, crowing that the little faggot got what he deserved.
But this is not what you will see in Beverly Seckinger's Laramie Inside Out. This newest documentary by the University of Arizona media arts professor actually depicts Laramie as a community of love and tolerance, where the gay residents are out, and blending right in with the other locals.
It's not quite the same Laramie where Seckinger lived from age 10 until she graduated from college some 20 years ago. Although Seckinger became aware of her sexual orientation while she was a teenager, she didn't dare come out until long after she'd left town. With Laramie Inside Out, she says, "I wanted to show the contrast between the silence about gay stuff when I lived there, and the discourse about it finally entering Laramie in this horrible, tragic way, and the way Laramie entered the world"--initially, because of the Shepard murder, with an undeserved reputation as a nest of homophobes.
Laramie Inside Out is the opening attraction in the Wingspan FilmFest 2004, running March 4-7 at The Loft Cinema. For the ninth year, the festival will showcase lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender film with an international menu of documentaries, features and shorts.
Seckinger traveled to Laramie six months after the murder, on the opening day of the trial of the two young thugs who beat Shepard, tied him to a remote fence and left him to die. She made three further visits to her old hometown, the last on the first anniversary of Shepard's death.
"I wanted to go through the grieving process with everybody," she says. "I had sort of a Waltonsy, nostalgic, lost-in-time feeling for Laramie.
"Every bit of sidewalk there has a thousand memories for me. Everybody looks familiar, but I don't know any of the people there anymore."
Early in her documentary, she captures something unfamiliar on the sidewalks of Laramie: a procession of college students dressed as angels, singing a celestial version of the "Hokey Pokey" ("You put your halo in, you put your halo out, you put your halo in, and shake it all about"). They're on their way to the courthouse, to gently counter-protest a demonstration by Kansas Baptist preacher Fred Phelps and a handful of troublemakers holding up signs warning that "God hates fags."
"Maybe I went in like Calamity Jane to save this town," says Seckinger, recalling the tomboy heroine of her youth.
But Laramie was already saving itself. One of the many college students she interviewed assured her that since he came out, "Nobody has turned their back on me."
Whereas Seckinger had grown up amid an intimidating silence about homosexuality, on this trip to Laramie, she found a well-organized gay student group hanging out at the Village Inn. She found a weathered ranch woman who'd come out only recently, to acceptance from her longtime church congregation and minister. She found an outdoorsy woman hanging out with the stereotypical redneck hunters at a shooting range; when asked, "What kind of a lesbian are you?" she replied, "One with a lot of firepower."
"There's entrenched homophobia everywhere," notes Seckinger, "but now in Laramie, it's obviously not cool to show it in public. It seems like Matthew Shepard's murder was a watershed moment--it opened up hearts that hadn't been touched yet."
Seckinger struggled for four years to find a narrative thread for the stories she heard in Laramie; ultimately, she decided to thread her own personal history into the documentary, contrasting the "absolute silence" about homosexuality when she was young with Laramie's new, open discourse.
The discourse is certainly open at the Wingspan FilmFest. Attractions include several other documentaries, on topics ranging from women's music (Radical Harmonies) to the first transsexual in the New Zealand government (Georgie Girl). Among the narrative works are the locally filmed comedy Eating Out, a campy English murder-mystery spoof called Nine Dead Gay Guys, and some diverse shorts grouped under the title Lesbians in Love.
Seckinger is pleased that Laramie Inside Out will lead off the festival, but she hopes the documentary will be seen by audiences in more general venues, too. "It's about the community; it's about child-parent issues; it's about church issues," she says. "It's about redemption."
Early in the film, as Seckinger's car approaches the storm-threatened outskirts of Laramie, Seckinger says that she can't quite think of this trip as a homecoming; she hadn't lived in Laramie for years, and had no occasion to go back once her parents moved away. But this would not be a hard journey to an alien place.
"Laramie turned out to be like home in a new, deeper way," she says now. "I could be myself."