Luke Cole is one of state Rep. Gerald Gay’s many online hecklers. Cole is a 20-year-old University of Wyoming student who wants to see same-sex couples have the same civil liberties as others in the state. Gay is opposed to the idea. The politician and Cole went at it on Facebook on Tuesday evening.
“Given your obsessiveness over hating gay people, it seems pretty likely that you actually are gay,” Cole wrote to Gay. “Are you Gerry? Do you like men? Probably.”
Gay responded a few minutes later.
“You know my address. Why don’t you drop by and find out for yourself. I’ll be waiting,” he wrote.
The Casper Republican has a long history of online correspondence with his detractors. A dozen or more advocacy groups hound Gay via email and Facebook. Gay’s surname and outspoken stance against same-sex marriage make him an easy target for supporters of same-sex couples in the state.
“Because of my name, I’m a lightning rod,” he said.
If Cole were to come knocking on Gay's door, the lawmaker said he would invite him in to talk.
"I would ask him, 'Am I as bad a guy as you think I am?'" Gay said.
Gay said he’s known as an intolerant homophobe by many in the state. There’s a website dedicated to scorning Gay and a Facebook group calling for his resignation from the Legislature. But that doesn’t stop him from chatting online with people who aren’t his constituents and oppose his views.
“He didn’t take the high road on this and act like an elected official of the Wyoming Legislature,” said Jeran Artery, chairman of Wyoming Equality, a gay rights advocacy group that lobbies the Legislature.
Artery isn’t happy with Cole’s comments either. In the conversation, Cole went so far as to call Gay a “rancid clown.”
“Our number one rule is be courteous, be kind and tell your personal story,” Artery said. “I was disappointed in the childlike banter on both sides.”
The dialogue between the student and legislator is a black eye for the equality movement, Artery said.
“It’s never helpful for any advocacy cause at the Legislature for people to insult lawmakers,” said Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, a gay rights advocacy group that lobbies across the nation.
Artery said that with a U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage pending and such hard-line conservatives as former Vice President Dick Cheney and Ohio U.S. Sen. Rob Portman coming out in support of same-sex couples, advocates are gaining ground.
“People don’t want to discriminate against people they love,” Artery said.
The bickering between Gay and Cole continued throughout Tuesday evening. The representative ended the conversation with a political proposition to supporters of same-sex marriage.
“I challenge you advocates to put it on the next general election ballot as a constitutional amendment, and then there will be no doubt how all constituents in this state stand on the issue,” Gay wrote.
Cole and Gay have gone back and forth since the 2011 legislative session. Gay was in support of killing bills that would give same-sex couples the right to enter into domestic partnerships, and he co-sponsored legislation that would have forfeited the privileges of marriage to any same-sex couple married in another state and living in Wyoming. During a 2011 bill debate, Gay asked all members of the House to stop using his last name as a synonym for those who are attracted to the same sex.
He asked his peers to use the word sodomite or homosexual.
“Calling it by my last name doesn’t change that it’s sin,” he said. “The first clue that something is up is when you have to change what you call something.”
The atmosphere at UW is “exceptionally friendly” toward same-sex couples, Cole said.
“The state as a whole is a completely different story,” he said. “The rhetoric of our state government doesn’t match with the role of the state government regulating adult relationships.”
Cole makes no qualms about his online behavior with Gay.
“I bait him,” he said.
When legislators get blasted, they often become more opposed to the cause, Marsden said.
“No single issue has ever advanced because of baiting,” he added.
Gay said the verbal scuffle isn’t as much fodder as it is free advertising.
Gay said there are few people who support same-sex marriage in his conservative House district.
“They’re making me more electable,” he said of his detractors.
A lot of legislators think their constituents believe in everything they do, Marsden said.
“I would hate to think that any of this would positively enhance a lawmaker’s reputation,” he said.
This past session, legislation supporting domestic partnerships between same-sex couples made it further in the Legislature than ever before. It was sponsored by Wyoming's first openly gay lawmaker, Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, and was debated on the House floor before being voted down 34-25.