A Student Reflects On a Peer's Murder and His Community's Response
By Jeff Bryant
I was a senior in high school and had just moved to Newark, California, when the community was rocked by an act so hateful that it captured national attention. Gwen Araujo, a local transgender teen, was tragically killed by a group of young men. Before her body was discovered in the Sierra Mountains in a shallow grave, Gwen had been beaten and strangled to death.
At the same time I learned of her death, I was preparing to audition for Newark High School’s production of The Laramie Project, a play about the town of Laramie, Wyoming, and its reaction to the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay college student. I remember when the school’s wonderful and courageous drama teacher Barbara Williams first invited me to audition for the play. That night I went home and read selections from the play and cried my eyes out. I had been in theatre all of my childhood and teen years and had read many plays. But there was something different about the characters that struck deep into my core. These were real people who existed outside of the play -- ordinary people asking questions and making realizations about themselves and about the town that they grew up in. Did their town raise children who would commit such a brutal murder?
Like many in Laramie assumed, the people of Newark thought that Gwen’s killers were from out of town. Borrowing a line from The Laramie Project, they thought, “we don’t raise kids like that here.” But when it turned out that all four of the young men were raised in Newark, the community had the same painful realization that the citizens of Laramie faced. We do raise kids like that here. Somehow, along the way in growing up in Newark, those four young men learned hate.
It was as if life was mirroring art -- we were Laramie. We were a town reacting to a murder, while putting on a play about another town reacting to another murder. We no longer had to act the play. We were living it. In the school and community, there were discussions about whether to continue with the play or cancel it. But for those of us involved, we never saw that as an option. People told us that we were brave for pushing ahead with it, but none of us felt brave. Gwen was brave. As a transgender young woman, she had to have remarkable courage just to be herself. We owed it to her to take a stand. And we knew the community needed The Laramie Project to help make sense of all the madness.
During the production, we met many of the real people that the characters were based on, as well as playwright Moises Kauffman, who attended our opening night performance and was very supportive of our production. But we also became the target of hate. The anti-gay Preacher Fred Phelps sent 15 members of his Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kansas, to protest our school play and spew hateful messages that God hated us and that Gwen and Matthew Shepard were in hell. We also found swastikas written on the school restroom walls, signed by the “Newark Nazis.” I was shocked to learn that a friend of mine was a Nazi and at first thought he was joking. It’s tough to face that hate like that exists in our own community. I think what I learned most of all from the experience was how so-called ordinary kids from good, loving families are capable of perpetuating hate.
That is why the Not In Our Town project and its documentaries are so important. NIOT reminds us what’s at stake -- that crosses haven’t stopped burning, or that some members of our community and their safety are vulnerable just because of who they are. But we are also reminded that the most powerful weapon against hate is standing up -- standing up not just for tolerance, but also for acceptance and love. We are reminded of the power of ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
The one thing I have learned in studying history is that we don’t always learn from history. But maybe the story of what happened to Gwen, and the progress the community has made since, is a good step toward awareness. Still, we should ask, must it take murder to bring about awareness and bring about change?
It is time for communities like ours to break the silence, because when there is injustice, silence is acceptance.
After performing in The Laramie Project, Jeff Bryant worked as a stage actor at venues including the California Shakespeare Theatre, The Willows Theatre and Sierra Repertory Theatre. He is currently completing a Bachelor’s Degree in Anthropology at Humboldt State University.