Fifteen years after Matthew Shepard was killed in Laramie, what has changed for gay people in Wyoming and what has stayed the same?
On the anniversary of the beating death of the slight, 105-pound UW student who had come out as gay, there’s one area where nothing is different in Wyoming, and that is the law.
Wyoming is one of five states never to adopt hate-crime legislation. Supporters believe such laws add protection for a person who could be targeted for being gay.
A second legal change that has been refused in the Wyoming Legislature is recognition of gay partnerships either as marriage or as civil unions.
This has rarely been a state where new proposals have been adopted quickly, and that unwillingness to jump on a bandwagon has also worked in favor of gay couples. The very conservative Wyoming Legislature has many times refused to adopt a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a relationship solely between a man and a woman. That was an idea that gained popularity in conservative states, but never could get enough support to pass in Wyoming.
The sometimes glacial pace of change in the Wyoming Legislature cuts both ways for those supporting gay rights.
There is plenty of contradiction when the question goes beyond the law and ventures into attitudes.
“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 in a story reported by Benjamin Storrow in the Star-Tribune Oct. 6.
Storrow found that, “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.”
Simply the fact that the picture of a gay couple with their baby dominated the page that contained Storrow’s retrospective is a change. It was not an image seen on newspaper front pages 15 years ago in Wyoming.
Reaction to that particular picture was not neutral; some readers protested and others were glad to see it. But the numbers tell a story of change. Storrow reported that in 2010, the state had 657 same-sex couples, a 74 percent increase over the 378 reported in 2000.
People from outside Wyoming who hold a stereotyped view of the “Cowboy State” and its people might be surprised that many gays interviewed by Storrow said they are comfortable in Wyoming.
They cite the tenure of Guy Padgett as Casper’s openly gay mayor between 2005 and 2006 and the election in 2009 of State Rep. Cathy Connolly, a Laramie Democrat who is the first openly gay lawmaker to serve in the Wyoming Legislature.
Even in the area of law, change came closer than ever before in the 2013 session when a domestic partnership bill, sponsored by Connolly and others, was approved by the House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee. The vote wasn’t even close: seven ayes and two no votes. It was not adopted by the full House, but passing in committee was definitely a first, and a true shock to some political watchers.
“Wyoming is conservative, but what people don’t get is there is such a strong mentality of live and let live,” is how the chairman of Wyoming Equality, a nonprofit advocate for LGBT people, describes it.
It may require living in Wyoming to realize how the assumptions drawn across the country from Matthew Shepard’s horrible death fail to capture the variety of opinions in the state or the reality of life for gay people who choose to live here.
And for Wyoming citizens, it’s also clear that there’s a long way to go before the gay community feels all the benefits of being equal in the Equality State.