Tasha LeClair & Beth Loffreda: The Invisible West

May 26, 2015

After a lifetime of hearing about the American West's preferred myths, Tasha LeClair, who grew up in Wyoming, tends to feel invisible:

 “When I write about the West I feel as though I'm poking around the perimeter of a vast blank place where words don't live.

It's not about having the right to talk about it. One of the West's most cherished myths is that some must earn the right to call it home, as if they are pioneers who must go on “settling” this land—through their words, if they are writers—in order to claim it.
Maybe it's our own fragile sense of identity that dredges up a deep-down craving for the power to decide who has the right to be here and who doesn't.

I grew up in Wyoming, on a patch of deeded land on the Wind River Indian Reservation. My dad is half-Shoshone, my mom is white—my coloring is light; my brother's, dark. I felt cut up by boundaries within boundaries, cut up by fences, cut up by shades of light and dark. For these reasons I never felt sure of my claim to this place; instead, I came to believe that such a claim, made by someone like myself, may not only be classified as delusional, but comes at a price.

Years passed and my community did not seem to expand, despite the West's supposed pioneer character; if anything, we were losing people, and these losses seemed specific: Natives, LGBT youth, girls and women.

When I consider what needs to be said about the West, I think about the people we've lost. Those who have never existed in the West I heard about, am still hearing about.”  

Beth Loffreda, author of "Losing Matt Shepard: Life and Politics in the Aftermath of an Anti-Gay Murder"
Credit Nick Romanenko

In her book, "Losing Matt Shepard," University of Wyoming professor Beth Loffreda distrusts the reactions of those who would seek to either whitewash or condemn the town of Laramie, where Matthew Shepard, a young gay college student, was brutally murdered:

“I've spoken to some who want Laramie sentenced and condemned as a hateful place; some who want Laramie defended, who feel deeply that the good of this town far outshines the bad; and some who simply want the murder, and all that swirls around it, forgotten.

Representatives of each of those sensibilities draw breath in this book, and I myself have worn a path between the first two, as I've found myself alternately persuaded by those who truly love this place and those who long to flee it. It's a whiplash condition, perhaps because Laramie itself has been whiplashed in the past year, its residents confronting a startling ugliness, watching themselves on television, trying to reconcile what they thought with what they now were forced to know.

If anything has come close to uniting Laramie since October 1998, it is that condition of whiplash. There's no cure for it—certainly not forgetfulness—and instead I've come to see the whiplash as an opportunity, a chance to see the stubborn incommensurable, the halfway covenants, and the halting transformations of Laramie in the aftermath of Matt Shepard's murder.”

(Broadcast: "Reflections West," 5/27/15. Listen weekly on the radio, Wednesdays at 4:54 p.m.)