A play that explores a true crime murder of a gay student in 1990s America raises questions about the adequacy of current Victorian laws around hate crime.
The true crime
In October 1998 a young gay student Matthew Shephard was lured from a bar to the outskirts of town in Laramie, Wyoming. On a bitterly cold night he was tied to a fence, savagely beaten and left begging for his life. He died soon after being discovered the following day.
The horrendous crime, the community’s reaction and legal case that followed were captured in a moving script by the New York’s Tectonic Theater project, which became known as The Laramie Project. The theatre group travelled to Laramie and made a play about what happened, based on the court case transcripts and interviews with family, friends and locals. It has since become one of the most performed plays in America, and is coming to Melbourne, presented by the not-for-profit organisation Bottled Snail production company led by Victorian legal professionals.
Rehearsals for BottledSnail's production of The Laramie Project
What happened next
‘What came of the crime was an outcry in relation to hate crime, and eventually led to former US president Obama enacting anti-hate crime legislation, which was known as the Matthew Shepard Act, says director Nicky Neville-Jones, a Melbourne family lawyer with a background in performing theatre.
‘In America at that time there was no legislation relevant to that particular crime. And I wanted Bottled Snail to take on the project because of the various human rights themes, and the fact that it’s still relevant in 2019,’ she says.
The Laramie Project Director Nicky Neville-Jones
Push for change in Victoria
Twenty years since the Matthew Shepard case, there is a growing campaign to strengthen laws in Victoria to respond to prejudice motivated offences, and violence against the LGBTI community.
In their recent End the Hate report the Human Rights Law Centre called on the Victorian Government to legislate specifically against hate crimes, to ensure everyone including the LGTBI community are treated with dignity and respect.
‘There is concern that existing laws and policies may not effectively deter or combat prejudice motivated crime practice,’ the report says.
In particular, the report calls on the Victorian government to introduce a Hate Crimes Act to ensure all people are equally protected, and to support more research and data collection into the prevalence of prejudice motivated conduct to improve responses.
Lee Carnie, who co-authored the HRLC report with Anna Brown, will be speaking on the opening night of The Laramie Project about the ongoing relevance of the case to Victorians.
Funded by a small grant from Victoria Law Foundation, The Laramie Project will be showing at Chapel off Chapel from 21 February 2019 - 2 March 2019.
Tickets can be purchased from the Chapel off Chapel website.