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Wyoming mother an enduring figure for gay rights

By Edith Honan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The mother who championed gay rights after her son was tied to a fence and beaten to death couldn't bear to sit through the play that has helped keep his memory alive for the nearly 15 years since his murder.

But this weekend, at the opening of a double-billing of Moises Kaufman's "The Laramie Project" and "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Judy Shepard - seated in an aisle seat to allow for an easy escape - soldiered through the entire five-hour production, which recalls the story of Matthew Shepard's death in 1998.

"I just really didn't feel I needed to watch it because I lived it. And so many of the scenes bring back such horrific memories. I've never felt comfortable crying in public," Shepard said just before the Saturday performance. "It's been 15 years. I should be able to do this now."

Shepard made it through with the help of hugs from well-wishers at the intermissions.

Kaufman, a playwright and director who leads the Tectonic Theater Project, recalled the Shepard murder as a watershed moment that helped create a generation of activists and energize "straight allies" to the cause of gay rights.

"All of a sudden we had an image, we had an event, that operated as a catalyst," said Kaufman, a Venezuelan native who lives in New York.

The original play was born from the question of why Shepard's murder resonated more than other hate crimes, Kaufman said. The play has been staged more than 1,000 times.

Ten years after Shepard's death, Kaufman and Tectonic returned to Laramie, Wyoming, to produce an epilogue and to interview Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, who are serving life sentences for the murder.

Nine U.S. states have legalized same-sex marriage, and in March the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a challenge to the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage under federal law as being between a man and a woman, and whether Proposition 8, a California ballot initiative that outlawed same-sex marriage, should be struck down.

ANATOMY OF A MURDER

Henderson and McKinney confessed to meeting the 21-year-old at a Laramie bar on the night of Oct 6-7, pretending to be gay and offering him a ride home, with the intent to rob him. They grew enraged after Shepard made a sexual advance, they said, and took him to a desolate area in the outskirts of town, tied him to a fence and repeatedly struck him in the head with a handgun.

Shepard was close to death when he was discovered 18 hours later and he died in a Colorado hospital on October 12. In her 2010 book, "The Meaning of Matthew," Judy Shepard wrote that while she was at her son's side, she was barely aware of the rallies by thousands of well-wishers in cities across the country.

Judy Shepard, who is soft-spoken and shy despite her years in the limelight, says she is a reluctant advocate. But she has become a forceful voice for gay rights and a sort of mother figure for gay teens turned away by their own families.

"Many of us feel that Judy is the mother we never had. But it goes way beyond that," Kaufman said. "It's a story of a person who was put in an untenable situation and got the skills to triumph in that situation."

Shepard, who still lives in Wyoming, heads the Matthew Shepard Foundation and has fought for gay rights in her home state and for a federal hate crimes bill, which President Barack Obama signed into law in 2009 with Shepard at his side.

"I did what people didn't expect me to do, which was not go away," she said. "As a straight person, I have a gravitas that someone in the gay community saying the things that I say would not have."

She said she has been frustrated that change in Wyoming, also the setting of the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain, has come slowly. The state has no hate crimes law and this year the legislature rejected a gay marriage bill and a domestic partnership bill for same-sex couples.

Before the performance, a man who said he was about the same age as Matthew Shepard would be now tearfully thanked Shepard for her advocacy and said gay people "could not have had a better angel and a better mother."

Shepard's eyes also filled with tears, but she quickly regained her composure, saying: "This is what happens when you piss off somebody's mom." (Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Leslie Gevirtz)

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