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For most Americans, the question of same-sex marriage is a settled one.
Five years after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, a Gallup poll showed two-thirds of Americans believed such marriages were valid, marking the ninth consecutive year a majority of the country expressed a favorable opinion toward it.
As of this writing, two gay men — Richard Grenell and Pete Buttigieg — have served in presidential cabinets under Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden. The Wyoming Legislature currently counts several “out” members of the LGBTQ community among its ranks. And though discrimination remains a persistent issue in Wyoming, the question of whether same-sex marriage is legitimate is generally considered a non-issue.
On Jan. 25, the Wyoming Republican Party — whose platform remained opposed to same-sex marriage long after that 2015 ruling — released a statement on its Facebook page reaffirming that position. The post included a quote from evangelical pastor James Dobson suggesting homosexual marriage would lead to the downfall of civilization.
“Marriage represents the very foundation of human social order,” the quote read. “Everything of value sits on that base. Institutions, governments, religious fervor, and the welfare of children are all dependent on its stability. When it is weakened or undermined, the entire superstructure begins to wobble. Admittedly, there have been periods in history where homosexuality has flourished, such as in the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, in ancient Greece and in the Roman Empire. None of those civilizations survived.”
But as the Wyoming Republican Party digs in its heels, other traditionally conservative institutions are beginning to change their attitudes toward the LGBTQ community, including the Catholic church. Last week, Bishop Steven Biegler of the Diocese of Cheyenne, signed onto a national statement expressing support for LGBTQ youth as a tenet of the Catholic faith, moving the church away from a position it has gradually abandoned over the last several decades.
“As we see in the Gospels, Jesus Christ taught love, mercy and welcome for all people, especially for those who felt persecuted or marginalized in any way; and the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that LGBT people are to be treated with “respect, compassion and sensitivity,” the letter reads.
While labeled by the Cheyenne-based LGBTQ advocacy group Wyoming Equality as a “groundbreaking” moment, that change in attitude was not a sudden one, but a recognition that rejecting people’s whole self was a harmful practice.
“I think he just has a sincere regard for all of his parishioners,” said the organization’s director, Sara Burlingame, in reference to Biegler. “And I think he understands the church has treated LGBTQ Catholics as something separate, and has done harm there. And I think he’s a bishop who is seeking to reduce harm.”
Burlingame said that changing attitudes toward LGBTQ people in faith communities have come from decades of organizing through groups like her own and the Human Rights Council, which has sought to change the dialogue among parishioners in the church through advocacy and education.
But those efforts also break away from a long history of religious beliefs over homosexuality — particularly in the evangelical movement — dictating political attitudes among their practitioners that date back well into the 20th century, when evangelical ministers who preached the virtues of “traditional family values” first began to cross the threshold into public life.
“Within evangelicalism itself, this activism is often depicted as an expression of longstanding opposition to same sex relationships triggered by the gay rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, but the virulence with which conservative Christians opposed gay rights was rooted in the cultural and political significance they placed on the reassertion of traditional gender roles during those decades,” Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of History and Gender Studies at Calvin University, argues in “Jesus and John Wayne,” her latest book released late last year. “Same-sex relationships challenged the most basic assumptions of the evangelical worldview.”
But why the change? Burlingame said in some cases, the acceptance of unpopular realities in conservative establishments like the church come from a recognition by religious leaders of who their parishioners actually are: people of faith, some of whom love differently than themselves. People like Leah Vader, a gay woman in Gillette who, in 2007, was denied communion by her church for the sin of going public with her marriage to another woman.
“Hearing the news [of the bishop signing the letter] was a moment of comfort and affirmation that softened my past experience with exclusion in the diocese,” she wrote in an email to the Star-Tribune. “It showed what a difference having a bishop with an open and pastoral heart can make. That’s especially significant as the last four years have seen many US bishops become even more vocally opposed to LGBT civil rights. Bishop Steven is a true leader and a gift to Wyoming’s Catholics. All social justice issues are life issues and he gets that.”
Some have held fast to their opposition. But in Wyoming’s “small town with long streets,” Burlingame sees potential.
“For some of them, changing your position on this issue is just a political calculus, right? It is no longer popular to be opposed,” she said. “For others, I think it’s a moral calculus. Because we’re the least populous state in the Union, we have this opportunity to be in conversation, to be in a dialogue where we maybe wouldn’t if we were in a more metropolitan area.”
In the Republican Party, that conversation appears to be happening. As of this writing, that post on the Wyoming GOP’s Facebook page had more than 1,200 comments beneath it. Most, according to a quick review of that post, appeared to disagree with the party’s stance.