How the Laramie Project Taught Me
We All Deserve Love
by Connor Norton
When I first heard about the “Laramie: A Legacy” I just said “I’m going, I don’t care what I have to do, I don’t care what it costs, I’m going.” I then looked at my bank account, looked at my work schedule, and said “there’s no way this is going to work out” and was about to give up…but then a little voice told me ‘don’t do that, keep trying, you’ll never know if it’ll work if you don’t try.’ I was doubtful, but some little voice made my little introverted self start asking around for people at work to cover my responsibilities, to call someone at The Matthew Shepard Foundation, to rearrange my rehearsal schedule for the show I was in, and commit to an almost less than 24 hour trip to New York to make this happen. The stars aligned, the bus and train got booked, and I was set to go to New York, see friends, see this incredible show, meet friends and amazing souls, and turn right back around to go home and back to work before 24 hours was up…challenge accepted.
The Laramie Project was the first theatrical play I ever read that dealt specifically with the story of a queer person, it was the first time I heard about a queer person being talked about in any way that wasn’t ‘abnormal’ or ‘strange’. The overwhelming fascination I attached to this play came from it’s blunt honesty…this wasn’t an angel, or a martyr, it was a human being…and these were other human beings vocalizing their disappointment and sorrow at the loss of someone…someone like me. Throughout my high school life, my struggles with sexuality and confidence manifested into a storm of anxiety, depression, and social awkwardness that led to me totally isolated. I wasn’t anti-social, it wasn’t like I didn’t like people, but I had such a fear and adversity to the idea that someone would want to tolerate me or engage with me that I started closing myself off before even giving an interaction a chance. I often thought that because of who I was, both in my sexuality and my personality, I was nothing but a burden to be tolerated and never embraced.
As I wrapped up rehearsal on Sunday, September 23rd at 10:15PM, after a 12 hour day of rehearsal, I asked one of my cast mates to give me a ride to the bus stop. He said ‘sure, no problem’ and we booked it right from rehearsal to the bus. On our way over several bridges, traffic upon traffic popped up in our way, unusual for a Sunday, and I started to question if making this trip would be in the cards for me. But a little voice said ‘you’ve come this far, you have to make it now, go’ I don’t know if I said something out loud, or if he saw a look in my face, but he immediately backed up and whipped around to the other side of the interstate to take an alternate bridge. After about 6 miles of 90mph driving, and my heart sitting in my throat for a majority of it I finally choked out ‘what are you doing?’ and he just said “you’ve come too far for this, we’re gonna make it!” Sure enough, we pulled up to the bus station with a half hour to spare, my legs still shaking I said “Thank you, Brian” and he sat and waited with me till the bus came.
When I was 14, our school announced that The Laramie Project was scheduled to be directed by one of our professors; Ricardo Melendez. I didn’t say it to anyone, but I was on the verge of exploding; I had never been so nervous, anxious, excited, terrified, eager to be a part of something like this before. I never ‘wanted’ for much in my life…I always figured wanting for things you were never destined to get was pointless. I didn’t see a line for my life that went past the age of 18, so aspirations were something I never had…so this new exciting breath out of my lungs feeling was exhilarating, different, and….nice. I told Ricardo how excited I was for this show everytime and every class with him, I studied my audition pieces, and the script more than any of my school work….which perhaps explains my lack of prowess in sciences today but who cares, I wanted this play so much! Auditions came and went, and I sat in class eagerly, day after day waiting for the cast list to go up.
I didn’t get a part, the cast list came out and I wasn’t cast. I didn’t give it much thought, mainly because a large part of my mind had already made up it’s mind that I wouldn’t get it. Why would I? Because I wanted it more than I’d ever let myself want something before? What does that matter or count for, not a thing obviously. I was sitting in playwriting class and our department chair, Steve, hands me a piece of paper while we’re doing a lesson. I look at it, and it says that I’ve been asked to Assistant Direct the production with Ricardo. I almost couldn’t help but cry in the middle of that class, I ran out as soon as it was over and went to the bathroom to get my breath back. Before I even make it to the bathroom, Ricardo catches me, almost like he knew where that message would send me running. I hope he hadn’t planned it, or maybe he made his peace with creeping out every theater student who had a little too much water before class. I asked him ‘why?’ and he just said ‘I know…I know this play is important to you, I can sense that, and I want you to be a part of it…if you’re ready’ I lost it right there, I don’t know how I could have held it in. I had never talked to anyone about my sexuality, my family, or anything about what this play was…and here he was, some educator that I’d had my blinders up against for all my years, who could see what I was feeling…who saw me…and asked me to partake in this world I felt I had no right to be in.
Monday, September 24th at 4:33AM I was greeted by the sight of The Empire State Building in the distance. I looked up from my cell phone, a little bit of drool on it from the last 2 hours I spent passed out, and the long list of pages I wrote on ‘how to introduce myself to famous people without sounding like a dork’ and realized that I was here…I made it. I got into the city at 6:30AM and hopped a cab to make it to my friend’s place just a few blocks down, at 6:30AM he still greeted me with the happiest and brightest smile one could have. All day we toured Central Park, saw art in museums, and talked about everything that had been going on in our lives. I hadn’t seen Brandon in almost a year, and we were connecting over this lovely city and chance encounter like not a moment had passed. I didn’t feel like I was on a trip, I felt like I was home.
Five o’clock rolled around and I headed over to the theater to meet some friends before the show, I was as nervous and excited as the first time I began to work on this show. The theater was packed, everyone was excited, and the cast quietly took their seats to an applause before the show began. I found myself mouthing almost every word, some out of familiarity from having been rehearsing this play for a few weeks, some from the words that never left my heart since I first read it. I cried, I laughed, and felt full as these artists and people shared words and sentiments in a room with me and several other people who have lived with these words and stories for varying amounts of time. Moments came through in this show that had never had so much weight to me before, everytime I see this play it fascinates and captures me how different the words can be for people. Particularly Aaron McKinney, a man who’s name and presence invokes such pain and such anger…yet on-stage was portrayed as scared and meek young man, aware of his crime yet unforgiving; I never thought of Aaron that way before and it was almost as the very performance was a statement against everything his actions tried to be. Like, in Andrew’s performance, he was saying “we aren’t afraid of you, we know you, and you won’t make us feel this way anymore” a human portrayal that gave me another new little ray of light into this world.
Following my production in high school, I decided to finally come out. I told my classmates, my teachers, everyone and almost anyone who might have wanted to know…and some who didn’t. I didn’t care who knew! I wanted to tell the world! It was such a freeing feeling, except for my parents. So when the time came, I brought myself into my Mom’s room and told her everything. I repeated it several times, partially out of nervousness, and partially to get it over the lump in my throat, while she clicked away at Amazon or Ebay. Eventually I was sure she had heard it, and she turned to me and said “have you tried not to be?” and I said “yes, Mom, that’s why we’re having this conversation now…I can’t keep trying.” There was a pause, my Mom was always a fan of pauses, talking in emotions and honesty was not how a southern family did things…we’d much rather make the tension thicker than a stick of butter and cook with it. I waited and waited until the parts connected for her, she told “you just directed that show with Ricardo, right? About Matthew Shepard?” I said yes, and she asked me why, after I just worked on a story for months about how hard it would be for someone in that lifestyle, why I would want to live like that. It was a fair question…what happened to Matthew was terrible, terrifying…what happens to our community still is…but I just looked at her and said “Mom…there are people here, in this world, who would fight for people like me. Who admit that who I am is beautiful, worthy of love, and deserved to live in this world…if they will fight like for me, the least I can do is fight for them and for people like me who still are looking for the fighters and friends I found.”
Following the show, we went to the after party and had an amazing time. Never did I think I would see myself at something like this in New York, surrounded by the artists and warriors that fought all their lives to help me see the theater and world I wanted to be in. Through every performance they were in, or every play that they wrote, to the gift of The Laramie Project…these were the people who showed me that theater was the thing worth committing my life to. I nervously introduced myself to one or two people, barely able to speak over the thundering music and voices of so many people. But in the distance I could make out a small, mousy voice telling me once again ‘just do it, speak to them from the heart, and meet them’ and through the end of the night, my friends helped me meet, speak, shake hands, and express my gratitude and happiness to each and every one of them.
People think that it was coming out that saved my life, that all answers to the strange amorphous thing called life can be answered for queer people by ‘coming out’ but it’s not. It can’t be, we are all so much more than that. Once I overcame my sexuality, I had years and years of things to undo, damage that had been done by my anxiety, depression, self-image and confidence that is still present in my life today. But the lesson that The Laramie Project taught me, that the people of Laramie and the people in that restaurant on Monday night taught me is “We all deserve Love.” Look at me, a young queer artist in Norfolk, Virginia aspiring to be a playwright and artist that can create the next generation of work that will foster and inspire young queer artists like me. A nobody, essentially, around the giants that shaped the world that welcomed me…these beautiful people surrounded by friends, family, lovers, things I’ve seen all my life and never thought I’d have myself…until it clicked for me.
I am. You are. We are all deserving of love.
No one in this world has the right to take or withhold love from you, no one does not receive love…only ever prevent themselves from receiving it, seeing it, or finding it where it is out there for us. My anxiety in that space melted away, and I became wordly aware that one day…thanks to this story and these people I will carve out a world that makes me feel surrounded by happiness. It might not be just like this, it might not be in New York, it might not look like The Laramie Project, and the love and light I have in the world might not look like anything I see in that room…but that’s because Love is never the same for all of us, but it is always infinite and present in any form we need when we need it. As I walked out of the event, I was thinking of my favorite millennial comedian, Bo Burnham, and his song Lower your Expectations; naturally there is a lot of humor and jokes in it, while it implies that you lower your expectations of what love and life can be…I like to think of it as looking at life through a new perspective. This world I’ve seen, thanks to Matthew and thanks to The Laramie Project, has taught me how beautiful the world can be; and while my home and my life may not be something like the others I see…it can be all of those things if I notice the smaller things.
That small voice, hopeful, mousy voice that walked my small, uncoordinated, loser self through my college and high school years. That voice that showed me the joy in this amazing night, and gave me the courage to meet and enjoy the people I’ve looked up to for years that are around me. I like to think it was Matthew. Or the hope Matthew gave me, and many other queer people in the world when the love he cultivated in his corner of the world came out and showed itself in the face of hate. As I rode back on the train, inspired and my heart swelling I sang a mantra to myself…a little one from my favorite comedian that asks “are you happy?” a question that is sometimes hard to answer for a person like me. But every time I sang it, that little hopeful voice said ‘yes’. Thank you Matthew. Thank you Tectonic. Thank you Judy and Dennis…however we may hear of each other again know, I’m happy. I’m finally happy thanks to you.
About the Author:
Connor Norton is a long-time ‘artivist’ having dedicated most of his career thus far to art for the sake of social activism and change. His work began in high school when he directed “The Laramie Project” with his mentor turned artistic partner Ricardo Melendez. Since then, he has done works to benefit associations like The Young Women’s Christian Association, Access AIDS Care and The LGBT Center of Hampton Roads, The Ali Forney Center, The American Foundation for Equal Rights, and many more. Connor completed his B.A. in Theatre and Women & Gender Theory with a minor in Business Administration from Old Dominion University. He currently serves as Company Manager for Virginia Stage Company and is an artist in residence at The Zeiders American Dream Theatre.