Living with Dissonance: My Hope for Mollie and Mary

June 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

I read The Laramie Project five years ago. The play was written about Matthew Shepard, a young gay man whose murder in 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming drew national attention and led to efforts to address American intolerance toward gay and lesbian people. Moises Kaufman and members of Tectonic Theater Project, a New York theater company, traveled to Laramie to interview members of the small town over the year following Matthew’s death. The play uses the words of Laramie’s citizens to show the aftermath of the hate crime in all its complexity, as people try to understand what happened and why. It is one of the most powerful things I have read to this day.

Portland, TX is likely grappling with similar questions, after two young women in a relationship were shot and left to die in a park there. One of the teens, Mollie Judith Olgin, has died, and the other, Mary Christine Chapa, is in “serious but stable” condition in the hospital. No one has been connected to the attack, but it does not seem to be a random event. Although police have not yet identified this as a hate crime, the girls’ relationship will remain a factor in the investigation as it moves forward.

Ten years after Matthew’s death, Tectonic Theater Project returned to Laramie to again interview members of the community and those involved in the event to see how things had changed over the past decade. The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, an Epilogue was performed in over 100 theaters across the United States  on October 12, 2009. I was lucky enough to see one of the performances and what struck me most about the new material was how different people had learned to cope with the murder and its association with the town.

On some level, many people seemed to want to just “move on” from what happened. The raw hurt and emotions expressed in the first play had for some transformed into a weariness with the town’s tragic history. While others including Matthew’s mother Judy Shepard had become very involved in advocating for gay rights, many had not taken specific actions to address the intolerance that had cost Matthew his life.

When someone’s actions do not line up with their attitudes toward a subject, it can lead to internal conflict and tension. According to cognitive dissonance theory, people relieve that tension by changing their attitudes to fit their actions. So if someone in Laramie, WY believed that Matthew Shepard’s murder was wrong and became motivated to combat intolerance to homosexuality but did not act on that motivation, eventually they might downplay the importance of the tragedy in order to dispel the inner tension they would otherwise feel. It’s a coping strategy, but it also takes away from the potential change that can happen in response to terrible events.

Unless we force ourselves to face the reality of how homosexuality is portrayed and thought of in America and the terrible consequences that can have on individual lives, things will not change in our society. If we continue to characterize events as the result of disturbed individuals without accounting for the social context in which they occur, we let ourselves off the hook for accepting social norms and attitudes that contribute to intolerance.

I am so very sorry for the family, friends and other loved ones of Mollie and Mary. This should not have happened. Nothing like this should ever happen again. And it is our responsibility to work so that it never does.

When members of Tectonic Theater Project arrived in Laramie for the first time, they saw an inn with a sign that said “HATE IS NOT A LARAMIE VALUE” (p. 14). My hope for Mollie and Mary is that we embrace that proclamation now more than ever. Hate is not a value that should be allowed to exist within our society. A first step toward changing that might be living with the dissonance that will come from these attacks long enough to act, instead of pushing it away to make ourselves feel better. I hope we can do better this time.

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