On: Going Back to my High School for The Laramie Project

This month I returned to my home town of Moraga, California, where I grew up and graduated from Campolindo High School. This very small, affluent, and conservative town was not an easy place to grow up as a gay teen. The student body population is largely white and the campus culture was centered around football and men’s basketball. Lettering in sports and going to a prestigious 4-year college were all that mattered. Being gay was something you never talked about. There was no such thing as a gay-straight alliance. Today, it is still conservative and small, but things are different and getting better because of teachers like Jamie Donohoe and plays like The Laramie Project.

Mr. Donohoe teaches drama and English and used The Laramie Project this year for the second time at Campolindo High School. His goal was to not only share the story of Matthew Shepard, but to create a venue for conversation. I’ve attended dozens of productions of The Laramie Project representing the Matthew Shepard Foundation and find that the talkbacks following the play are powerful, life-changing, and the silver-lining in an otherwise horrific event. What I witnessed during Campolindo’s talkback was inspiring and gave me great hope for my alma mater.

I sat on a panel with straight-identified students and faculty in front of an audience of mostly students and a few faculty members. Students talked openly about their struggles with religion, what they have experienced on campus, and they listened as the one openly-gay male senior wondered why he was the only “out” man in his class. A young lesbian woman spoke up and others were honest about their own “questioning” status. Perhaps the most powerful moment was when a young man spoke about his personal struggle reconciling what his parents have told him and what he has heard from his church and the Bible, with what he just witnessed in the play and what he knows from his own experience. He pulled up Bible verses in his phone and used them as examples to illustrate his struggle.

Later, Mr. Donohoe wrote to me and said,

“One thing that came out of the discussion was that it’s the personal stories of the people around us that affects change (i.e. Matt’s story affecting you, your story affecting me, and so on). So, I challenged students to come sit in a chair in front of the class and share anything they want (which most people in the class didn’t know). The kids went for it — and the result is that these students are moving to a much deeper understanding of themselves and each other — and they are being incredibly kind and open with each other. So, thanks for helping to catalyze that!”

Reflecting on the day reminded me of the power of Matthew Shepard’s story and how after 19 years, it continues to change lives. None of the students who participated in the play and conversation after were even born at the time Matthew was murdered. Had they never read this play, it’s likely they never would have examined the story in high school. It’s the power of the story and the sharing of that story in conversation that changes minds and hearts. And every time I witness this happen, I’m reminded why the work of the Matthew Shepard Foundation continues to be vital to our movement as a community and of why life today, 35 years after I graduated from this high school, is better for me. I left feeling proud of the progress Campolindo High School has made, appreciating Mr. Donohoe and his students, and grateful for the change Matthew Shepard continues to make in this world.


About the Author:

Greg Miraglia is the Dean of Career and Technical Education at Napa Valley College. He served as the director of the Napa Valley Criminal Justice Training Center Police Academy for ten years. Mr. Miraglia has 27 years of law enforcement experience including 7 years as deputy chief of the Napa Valley Railroad Police Department. Mr. Miraglia has a Master of Arts Degree in Education from the University of Phoenix and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business from Empire State College.

Mr. Miraglia is the author of “Coming Out From Behind The Badge” and National Program Coordinator for the Stop the Hate Program. He speaks across the country about hate crimes and bias incident prevention. He also designed and now instructs the only state certified online Hate Crimes Investigations course in California. He has been active with the Matthew Shepard Foundation since 2001.