Coming Out of Rural Areas (Remembering Matthew Shepard)

Sierra Debrow 

 In a journal entry, Greg Pierotti recalls what it was like to cross Wyoming state lines the first time after the murder of Matthew Shephard. The sign on the side of the road read “WYOMING – LIKE NO PLACE ON EARTH.” It stood out to him for grammatical reasons. It should have read “WYOMING – LIKE NO PLACE ELSE ON EARTH.” Pierotti was visiting the Cowboy State for what some might call a ‘business trip.’ He, and the rest of the Tectonic Theater Project, were in Wyoming to gage people’s reaction to the murder of Matthew Shepard.

Like no place on Earth. In the context of The Laramie Project, that assertion is terrifying. It is a declaration of difference. It is a statement that says that the beating, torture, and murder of a gay man is somehow unearthly or inhumane… and yet, that it could happen in Wyoming and nobody would bat an eye. It drives home the narrative that Wyoming is a place that removed from hatred and injustice… as long as it maintains the narrative that Wyoming is a beautiful, American place. But it also provides a sense of comfort. To say that such things could only happen in Wyoming means that there is a sense of safety for LGBTQ+ Americans – as long as they are willing to stay far away from the state. 

My experience, on the other hand, told me that such unsafe places lurked everywhere for people with identities similar to mine. There are places where it is okay to be gay, to be bisexual, to be transgender, and to be queer. There are places where it is safe. And then there are places where disclosing your identity could mean certain death. Knowing where there is danger, after all, is essential to self-preservation. This was just one of my takeaways from my first reading of The Laramie Project in 2011.

When I received a job offer in the middle of the Deep South, I was overjoyed. I was one of the first of my college friends to receive a job offer. I felt empowered, excited, and ecstatic. But then my mind would turn to Laramie, Wyoming, and the horrible crime that was committed in 1998. Matthew Shepard was murdered for being openly gay. What horrors would I, a nonbinary young person, be forced to face living and working in a similar cultural atmosphere? 

The decision to take the offer was an easy one. The decision to move to the Deep South, however, that was impossibly difficult. Once I made the move and explored my new city for a few months, I realized something about myself: I had allowed the reputation of the South, the stories of danger and oppression, to limit my view of a large swath of the country when, in truth, such danger was not a heavy factor in my lived experiences.  Just as the Tectonic Theater Project's troupe discovered that the people of Laramie, Wyoming were eager to change the reputation of their small town, I, too, met people on my journey who wanted nothing more than to change the narrative of the stereotypical Deep South as a narrow-minded, bigoted place.

It has been twenty years since Matthew Shepard’s murder. So many people are impatient to say that the time and place in which they currently live is nothing like Matthew’s last chilly, October night in Laramie, Wyoming. And in some ways, they are right. We now live in a world with marriage equality, with nonbinary gender markers available on birth certificates in a growing number of states, and where children's books teach about gender diversity and acceptance. But we also live in a country where LGBTQ+ people are increasingly likely to be victims of hate crimes and where many transgender people have faced workplace discrimination.

I want to live in a world where no such discrimination exists. I want to live in a world where places are not deemed unsafe for a group of people due to their sexual orientation, their gender identity, or any other part of who they are. Twenty years after Matthew Shepard was murdered, this feels more possible than ever, even if we do have plenty of work to do. Organizations like Transilient work to normalize the existence and stories of transgender and nonconforming people, giving voices to people who previously may not have been heard. We work to make the world a more accepting place for all identities with the hope that every place can become one without fear or danger for trans and gender non-conforming people. Twenty years after a tragedy, there needs to be a pathway to change and a pathway to light. Thankfully, Transilient is working to do just that.

Trans, nonbinary, and other LGB folks do a lot of work to claim their space in this world by coming out. What might actually begin making a difference is to hear allies, especially folks who live in areas deemed unsafe, to speak openly about being allies and why ally ship is an important facet of their identities and experiences. We should all come out as being people who won’t stand for anymore violence against the LGBT community regardless of who we are and where we live. 

On this National Coming Out Day, join Transilient in spreading that light by sharing your story with us today

[Sierra Debrow is a nonbinary young professional living in Jackson, Mississippi, and is Transilient’s research volunteer. Originally from Charleston, South Carolina, Sierra received a B.S. in Psychology from the College of Charleston in 2017. It was at the College of Charleston that they found a passion for Jewish Education, Disability Studies, and a passion for LGBTQ+ advocacy. Sierra is currently an Education Fellow at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life.]