Judy Shepard Responds To College Football Players Heckling Actors In “The Laramie Project”

Earlier this week, the University of Mississippi’s (AKA “Ole Miss”) theater department’s production of The Laramie Project, which is about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, was interrupted by a gang of 20 or so college football players in the audience, who are reported to have heckled actors, going so far as to call one of them a “fag.”

The players were in attendance as part of a course requirement. Afterwards, they were ordered by the athletic department to apologize to the cast, but many claimed they “didn’t know what they were apologizing for,” and so the apology for the team as a whole came from one lone player. The athletic department also e-mailed the theater department chair to apologize.

Michael Barnett, assistant chair of theater arts at the school and chair of the faculty senate, told USA Today in a phone interview: “We don’t always have the best audiences, but this was taking it to a new level to be sure. There were a lot of athletes there that night, so we’re trying to identify who specifically was using hate speech.”

In an exclusive statement to Queerty, Judy Shepard said:

One thing I often see in productions of The Laramie Project is that involvement in the play sparks in them an awareness of anti-gay hate that they often would not have noticed, especially when performed at colleges and universities. Seeing how the community of Laramie, Wyoming was affected by the murder of my son as told in the play, creates a space where a community can talk about hate.

I was disappointed to see that a number of Ole Miss football players and others in the audience decided to interrupt a performance of the play using anti-gay slurs. Using hate-filled words to interrupt a play about anti-gay hate is a sad irony that only reminds me of the work we at the Matthew Shepard Foundation and each of us as individuals must undertake to help stop hate.

After significant media pressure, the university’s Chancellor, Dan Jones, and Athletics Director Ross Bjork issued a joint statement Thursday afternoon pledging that the individuals involved will be “held accountable.” They concluded by saying: “On behalf of our 22,000 students, our faculty, and our staff, we apologize.”

Mississippi, where openly gay mayoral candidate Marco McMillian was brutally murdered and set on fire in February of this year, does not currently have a hate crimes law that extends to sexual orientation. President Obama signed legislation extending the federal hate crimes law to sexual orientation in 2009. The law was named after Matthew Shepard.

In other news: “Go To Hell Ole Miss” t-shirts are currently available on Ebay for just $17.50.