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    Sara von Roenn was not going to take this road. She’d planned to go the Colorado route through the mountains on her way home to Louisville, returning from this summer’s Burning Man, a weeklong event that sees an entire city of art and 70,000 people appear, then disappear, in the Nevada desert. But a friend suggested a straighter shot, I-80 through Wyoming, so she followed it. She figured it’d be easier on her borrowed van and trailer, loaded down by the weight of the installation she had set up at Burning Man.

    What a fight that was at Burning Man, at first. Alone in the 50 mph winds of the blistering desert, von Roenn tried to secure two-foot screws into the shifting ground. It had been much easier to glide them into the softer dirt of her home in Kentucky, where she first showed Opening the Closet — an interactive, freestanding closet that’s an in-your-face-and-heart look into LGBTQ history — at the Kentuckiana Pride Festival in June. In the desert, though, she had no friends to assist, just a shovel and a melting iron will. She dug and dug and, finally, an art crew came through the haze and gave her a helping hand, some water.

    On I-80, she needed coffee. Having drunk down a sunset in Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, watching the day shift its mind to night and the leaves change their minds to fall, von Roenn made up her own mind: She would pull an all-nighter to get home. She Googled Starbucks, approached a little town called Laramie, Wyoming.

    That’s when she heard it: the grinding metal sound. The same sound she heard back in Nevada before that important-looking piece of metal — the drive shaft — fell out. Kerplunk then, kerplunk again. The 34-year-old lost control of the wheel, the brakes. The van halted. Some men helped push her to the side of the road, next to an alley.

    It was 9 p.m. Quiet downtown. Von Roenn decided to sleep. Snuggled in the back of the van like she’d been for the past three weeks, von Roenn had a realization: This is where Matthew Shepard was killed.


    Opening the Closet is an interactive, freestanding closet that’s
    an in-your-face-and-heart look into LGBTQ history.

    Consider Shepard’s 1998 murder as von Roenn’s intro into the gay world. Von Roenn remembers hearing about Shepard — the gay man who was brutally beaten by two straight men and left to die on a fence post in the Wyoming weeds — on the news growing up in Bardstown, where she didn’t know a single gay person. Not even herself. She was in high school then, with her long blond hair, her blue eyes and an off-and-on boyfriend she’d had since eight years old. This was before her series of coming-outs: to her best friend, then her family. She shaved her head and started dressing in her brother’s baggy clothes and eventually found her look in bowties and suspenders, like a dapper young man. Still, Shepard’s death stuck. (She learned more about the murder in 2009, upon passage of the U.S. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, also known as the Matthew Shepard Act.)

    Shepard is in von Roenn’s installation. Well, was. The little 3D-printed shepherd-boy figurine representing him was hijacked from atop one of the dressers by someone at Burning Man. “At first I was sad,” von Roenn says. “Then I thought someone might be participating.” Then she saw the other damage. A “vote” sign lay crushed next to a milk carton, referencing Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected officials in America, who was assassinated in 1978. The Venus de Milo with a boom box— representing transgender woman Venus Xtravaganza’s 1988 murder — was broken at the base, “self-hate” written on her body. The Trojan Horse — representing the quadruple homicide of a lesbian couple and their two kids in Troy, New York, earlier this year — was turned on its side.


    Straight on, Opening the Closet is a collection of seven tall, rectangular wooden units lined up side-by-side, with shelves, places to hang clothes, drawers to put undies in — or, in von Roenn’s case, “trigger dioramas.” With this Closet, there’s nothing to walk into or out of. There are no doors. In January, when von Roenn saw the closet in the Shelby Park wood shop where she’d started apprenticing — to learn how to build, the Closet in the forefront of her mind — she asked and asked her boss about it.

    Finally, he let her have the closet. She painted it white. Every detail white. Every last figurine. In one drawer, blood bags are full of white blood, a reference to the 2015 FDA decision to lift its lifetime ban on gay men donating blood. Pictures of some of the 25 transgender people murdered in the U.S. so far this year swim in a sea of white, like a cloud, like a little cubby of heaven. The installation addresses stereotypes: lesbians watching Ellen, surrounded by cats; gay men as pieces of fruit. Von Roenn filled a drawer with vials of testosterone from a friend who was transitioning. Newspaper headlines from the ’80s shout about the AIDS epidemic. “We’ve lost a whole generation of gay men, artists, activists,” she says.

    Von Roenn remembers how Closet was all color at first. It was too overwhelming. “When it turned all white, all of a sudden it was a memorial. All of a sudden, it was a vigil. All of a sudden, it was romantic, beautiful. Something people could stare at and not feel threatened by,” she says. “It had this innocence.”

    In another drawer, for “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” a troop of white army soldiers circles around a speaker, rifles drawn. Speakers built into the shelves play interviews that von Roenn has collected over the past seven years. “Nine years ago, I went to a talk where an LGBTQ panel told stories from the past,” she says. “It struck me then how much I did not know about my LGBTQ history. It was my history, and it was disappearing. So I started recording stories of people in my community.” There’s the story about someone going through electroshock therapy at 14 years old, because they were gay. The coming-out stories. The HIV scares. The interviews play all at once. A mumble, confusion, dissonance.

    “When it turned all white, all of a sudden it was a memorial. All of a sudden, it was a vigil. All of a sudden, it was romantic, beautiful.”

    In Laramie, von Roenn woke with angels. “Matt’s Angels” — a mural in the alley directly beside her broken-down van. It depicts three people wearing wings made of PVC pipes and sheets, like those that folks used to block protestors from Westboro Baptist Church at Shepard’s funeral.

    Von Roenn took this as a sign to make the most of her time while her van was in the shop. She made some calls to the local NPR station. She cried passing a fencepost that resembled the one Shepard bled against. (The actual site, which for a while became a memorial, has been dismantled.) Before long, she was scheduled to show the installation as part of the documentary screening of Laramie Inside Out, which explores the aftermath of Shepard’s murder. The location? Right across from the bar where Shepard was last seen.

    It’s never exactly fun. It’s never exactly easy. At Louisville’s Pride, von Roenn got super-emotional. How do you hold space for people that are in pain and not take it on? How to heal and be healed? She says it’s like: “‘Hey, you know that deep, dark thing you have buried? Let’s look at that and get it out of you.’ That’s intense.” At Burning Man, when people would cry, she’d tell them, “I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you’re alive.”

    In this whirlwind of Wyoming, she watched as people wrote on the white. That’s part of the installation too: “Share Your Fear and Leave it Here.” Strangers’ have scribbled everywhere: “Not being loved for who I am 100%,” “Not being good enough.” Von Roenn says, “When I was interviewing people, I would see the fear in people’s bodies, physically. I want the fear to physically move through your hands, get it out of you. Have it be a communal effort. Let it go.” In Laramie, the memorial met an angel. One of “Matt’s Angels.” She introduced herself to von Roenn, said, “I was the left wing.”

    Von Roenn isn’t sure what’s next for Opening the Closet. Maybe she’ll set up the installation for U of L’s Pride Week. Or put it in a hotel, or an airport, somewhere with a larger non-LGBTQ audience. “I want to put it on wheels,” she says. “I want to Vanna White it around Louisville. I want people to bust out of their own little closets, little worlds.”

    This originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "The Closet Comes Out." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Mickie Winters,


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