LARAMIE — When Jim Osborn and Jesse Taylor got engaged, they went to the mountains. They posed for pictures beneath a rainbow-colored umbrella at the base of Medicine Bow Peak: two men kissing, each with a leg raised in the air behind them like a pair of Rockettes.
Two months later they were married under a red awning at the University of Wyoming campus. Around 200 of their family and friends attended. There were no clouds in the sky and the July day was warm.
It was, in Osborn’s recollection, “perfect.”
The years since have been less so. Sometimes they attract stares from other shoppers on trips to the grocery store. What are two men doing perusing the supermarket aisles holding hands, their eyes ask? Then it clicks, and the reactions aren’t always warm.
The supermarket shoppers are not the only ones to frown on Osborn and Taylor’s relationship. Wyoming does not recognize their marriage. In the state where they have always lived, the pair often feel like second-class citizens.
Osborn, who works at the university, cannot place Taylor on his health insurance, which Taylor lacks. They have to take extra legal steps to secure their assets and ensure they can care for each other in a medical emergency. They don’t even have the explicit legal right to become parents.
They find the last fact particularly galling. Osborn and Taylor spent three years trying to become parents. Last year, a friend agreed to be their surrogate mother and, in May, the couple welcomed Nessa Ruth Taylor home.
Taylor is Nessa’s biological father and legal guardian. Osborn, legally speaking, is nothing. He can’t put Nessa on his insurance, make decisions about her health and, if she were old enough, take her home from school. He’d need to fill out a permission slip to do that.
“The lack of legal recognition is downright terrifying,” Osborn said. “I worry about something going wrong. What happens if Jesse or Nessa gets sick? What if I can’t be there for them. What if I’m told I’m not her parent?”
Osborn and Taylor’s challenges are representative of the difficulties many gay Wyomingites face 15 years after gay UW student Matthew Shepard was murdered.
National attitudes toward gay, lesbian and transgendered people have changed dramatically since then. In 1998, no state had legalized gay marriage and nearly 60 percent of the country opposed legal recognition of same-sex partnerships, according to the Pew Research Center.
Today, 13 states allow gay marriage, six provide some sort of domestic partnership, and the number of Americans who support gay marriage (50 percent) exceeds those who don’t (43 percent), according to Pew.
Wyoming, meanwhile, remains a state of contradictions. The Cowboy State has never adopted a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a relationship solely between a man and woman. But it is also one of five never to adopt hate-crime legislation that would provide LGBT people an extra layer of protection against harassment and discrimination.
Gay Wyomingites interviewed for this story said the state has become a more accepting place in the past 15 years. They nonetheless noted they could be fired from their jobs or denied housing on the basis of their sexuality. In both cases, they lack legal recourse.
“As far as rights, we’re nowhere. But as far as community awareness, there’s been a great improvement,” said the Rev. Dee Lundberg, the openly gay pastor of the United Church of Christ in Casper.
Osborn and Taylor’s case is instructive. In the coming months, the pair will go to court and attempt what is often called a “second parent adoption.” Essentially, they are seeking to have Osborn named Nessa’s legal guardian alongside Taylor.
Wyoming has no laws explicitly prohibiting an adoption by a gay couple, but gay couples aren’t afforded any explicit rights in the process. The outcome of their petition will largely hinge on the presiding judge’s view of gay parenthood.
“One judge here may say ‘absolutely,’” Taylor said, “One might say ‘I don’t think so.’”
Taylor and Osborn were seated in their Laramie living room, contemplating their situation. Nessa swung in a rocking chair nearby, playing with a series of plastic toys dangling before her. The walls of their living room were filled with photos of the young child: Nessa sleeping on Grandpa Taylor’s belly; Nessa being held by Grandpa Osborn; Nessa, by herself, sandwiched between pictures of Osborn and Taylor, each with frames reading, “Dad.”
“It’s almost like I have to have the approval of other people to be a real husband, a real father,” Osborn said. “I wish people asked themselves sometimes, ‘What if someone told me you can’t be a good parent because you’re Methodist. What if someone told me, you can’t be a good husband because you’re Asian?’ That’s what it’s like.”
Wyoming is more accepting of LGBT people than outsiders believe, many said. Guy Padgett served as Casper’s openly gay mayor between 2005 and 2006. State Rep. Cathy Connolly, a Laramie Democrat elected in 2009, is the first openly gay lawmaker to serve in the Wyoming Legislature.
“Wyoming is conservative, but what people don’t get is there is such a strong mentality of live and let live,” said Jeran Artery, a gay man and chairman of Wyoming Equality, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of LGBT people in the state.
Census figures show the number of same-sex couples increasing. In 2010, the state had 657 same-sex couples, a 74 percent increase over the 378 reported in 2000.
“We’re not having gay pride parades, but we’re definitely present,” Lundberg said. “We’re your co-workers, your nieces, your nephews, your friends.”
This year, an anti-discrimination bill and a domestic partnership bill cleared legislative committees in the Senate and House respectively. Both were eventually defeated, but gay rights advocates saw progress nonetheless. It was a welcome change from previous years, they said, when legislators debated a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a relationship between man and woman.
“I do see real forward movement,” said Connolly, the author of the domestic partnership bill.
Artery described the state’s progress in personal terms. In 1998, when Shepard was killed, he was living in his hometown of Wheatland, the nephew of a preacher who frequently laced his sermons with teachings that homosexuality was a sin. Artery was still in the closet then, having spent much of his life feeling like he was a person in need of fixing.
He married a woman and hoped his feelings about men would disappear. They were together for 16 years and had a daughter. The feelings remained. He wanted to come out, but he feared losing his family and friends. Shepard’s death only deepened his apprehension.
“Hearing that story made me feel like I couldn’t come out,” Artery said. “It made me terrified.”
Today, Artery’s partner is leaving Denver to join him in Cheyenne, much to the consternation of the couple’s friends in the Mile High City. Why would two gay people choose to live in a state that has the reputation of being an unaccepting place, they wonder.
Artery, who works for New York Life, is quick to defend Wyoming. He does not fear harassment. His family and friends in Wheatland and Cheyenne are supportive, though he has not talked to his uncle since he came out.
“I love Wyoming,” he said. “I have been a financial adviser for almost 20 years. I have built a business here. I have clients across the state. This is my home. “
That doesn’t mean the Cowboy State is necessarily an easy place for a gay person to live. Connolly said Wyoming is less accepting of LGBT people than states with marriage equality. She was recently on the subway in New York City, where she saw a young gay couple cuddling in their seats.
“Nobody cared,” she said. “That was nice. That was very nice.”
In 2012, Wyoming had the highest suicide rate in the country; 165 people took their own lives, according to the Wyoming Department of Health. A significant number of them were gay, said Lundberg, who serves on the Natrona County Suicide Prevention Task Force. She described their deaths as “kind of a quiet thing.” Members of the gay community often know the person was gay, but their families do not, she said. It’s a secret she keeps after the person has died, feeling it is not her story to tell.
“It’s that isolation that is so dangerous,” Lundberg said.
The gray areas in Wyoming law are a burden for LBGT people, Connolly said. She cited Osborn and Taylor’s adoption case as an example.
Wyoming law requires adoptions be decided on the child’s best interests. Osborn and Taylor’s petition is different because it won’t change where their daughter lives, she said. Nessa lives at the couple’s home and will continue to do so. The issue is whether the legal recognition of Osborn as her parent is in Nessa’s best interest.
Connolly believes it’s a cut-and-dried case. Nessa lives in a loving environment, cared for by two doting parents. But there are no legal guarantees.
“It’s way too messy,” she said. “It’s way, way too messy.”
Osborn and Taylor are leaving little to chance. They replaced the carpet flooring downstairs with wood laminate lest it present any sort of health concern. They put Nessa on a nutrition plan designed by their pediatrician. And they have spent considerable time and money to make sure their legal documents are in order. They had papers drawn up outlining who among their family would care for Nessa if Taylor and Osborn both died, for instance.
“We want to make sure we get absolutely everything right so when we get into the courts for adoption there’s nothing anybody can point to and say what about this — that there are no excuses,” Osborn said. “If they’re going to turn us down, it’s going to have to be blatantly because we’re gay. Not because we’re bad parents.”
Both acknowledged that life might be easier if they moved to a state with laws more accommodating of gay couples. But like Artery, they don’t want to move.
Osborn, 38, is from Wright. Taylor, 34, is from Kaycee. Their families homesteaded in Wyoming when it was still a territory, and their relatives remain in the state today. Their careers are here: Osborn works in UW’s Office of Diversity, Taylor manages the Library Sports Grille and Brewery. They like that they can be in the middle of nowhere after a 20-minute drive.
“We stay for the same reason everyone else stays,” Osborn said. “It’s a great place to raise a family.”
Wyoming was the first state to give women the right to vote in 1869, he noted, a move that lent it the nickname “The Equality State.” One day, Osborn hopes Wyoming will live up to that name and pass same-sex marriage. One day, he hopes Wyoming will be known as more than the place Matthew Shepard was murdered.