It’s been 20 years since Matthew Shepard’s murder, since Wyoming was supposed to reckon with the undercurrent of hate surrounding the death of a gay 21-year-old college student, and Rep. Cathy Connolly can tick off the times in the past two years alone when it feels like little has changed.
There was last year, when Sen. Mike Enzi received criticism for how he answered a high school student’s question about making Wyoming a more accepting place for members of the LGBTQ community. Enzi suggested people could be who they wanted as along as they “don’t push it in somebody’s face” and that “a guy that wears a tutu and goes to the bars on Friday night” is asking for trouble.
There was spring 2016, when a 20-year-old Gillette man who had been bullied and assaulted for being gay killed himself.
Then, of course, there was Connolly’s own recent experience. In November 2017, a group of Wyomingites showed up at a Sundance legislative meeting to contest a bill proposed by Connolly, a Laramie Democrat and the first openly gay Wyoming legislator. As Connolly sat before them with her fellow legislators, one attendee said it was “disgusting” to listen to Connolly’s “drivel,” according to WyoFile. Another said same-sex marriage would “de-create” the earth. The committee then nixed the bill, which had appeared set to sail through.
Five months later, in April, a Fremont County talk show host argued with the Riverton superintendent about paintings in Riverton High School that showed support for LGBTQ students. The host decried the “destructive” nature of homosexuality.
Before that, a Riverton High School student’s car was vandalized with the word “lesbo” in red spray paint. She hadn’t told her family she was gay and didn’t notice the painted slur before she drove around town.
There have been positives, too, notes of progress in that chorus of hate.
The Riverton superintendent pushed back against the radio host, calling his opinions dated and inaccurate. A small circle of support formed around the student whose car was vandalized, and a local mechanic painted it for free, according to WyoFile.
Last year, Casper and Cheyenne held their first Pride marches and both cities have passed anti-discrimination resolutions.
And last month, more than 22,000 fans at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie applauded Scotia Mullin, an out gay diver, for being named the Western Athletic Conference diver of the year.
There have been positives and negatives, pushes forward and pulls backward. But in a state that became infamous in 1998 for Shepard’s murder, how much has changed for the LGBTQ community here?
“If you had asked me two years ago, I wouldn’t have examples right at the tip of my tongue,” Connolly said earlier this week. “But there’s some pretty horrible things that have happened in the past year that illustrate that we have a lot more to do in terms of recognition and education and acceptance of diversity.”
“We still could very well have another incident like Matthew Shepard happen,” a gay Natrona County High School junior, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the Star-Tribune, “and some of the things I see in high school do make me fear that something like that could happen again someday.
“We acted like we did good, but we really haven’t. We feel like we could never have something like that happen again, but it very well could.”
What does it mean to be LGBTQ in Wyoming?
Twenty-six years ago, it meant silence and fear, Connolly said. When she moved to Wyoming to teach at the university, out with a partner and a 6-year-old, Connolly said she was surprised by how homogeneous Laramie appeared — largely white, all seemingly Christian, all seemingly straight. She jokes that she was “too lazy to be closeted,” but she quickly discovered gay people in the college town were afraid to be open for fear of losing their jobs or worse.
“Wyoming in some way could hide behind that notion of the strong independent individual with the ‘live and let live’ (motto),” she said, “but the reality is far more dangerous for those who were not whatever that norm was.”
There was a feeling, Connolly said, that there were no members of the LGBTQ community in Wyoming. Shepard’s death forced a realization. She recalled when one of her students who worked in the admissions office came into class one day and said he couldn’t believe the phone call he just had.
“It was from a woman, a mom, who had a child who was coming to UW,” Connolly said, “and she called up to insist that her child not be put in a dorm room with a gay kid, and it never occurred to her that there were any gays in Wyoming. Now she felt like she needed to make sure that her son would not room with one.”
Connolly made a vow to herself to come out in every class she had, to show students they did in fact know a member of her community, to cut down on the invisibility that she said played a part in Shepard’s murder.
Indeed, there was a wave of men and women who came out after Shepard died, said Joe Corrigan, who helped found the United Gays and Lesbians of Wyoming, now called Wyoming Equality.
“At the rallies following Matthew Shepard’s death, a lot of people were coming out and just saying, ‘I’m not hiding any longer,’” he said. “‘This has just gone on long enough. By hiding, this is the stuff that happens.’”
But when the media storm that surrounded the murder dissipated, things went in the opposite direction. Wyoming Equality events had to be held in private because attendance at public events dipped to less than half of what they had been before the murder, Corrigan said.
“I think that’s just a really excellent example of how a hate crime stigmatizes a group that’s being hated,” Corrigan said.
In the new century, that stigma remained. Dirk Andrews, the president of the Natrona County Education Association, and his husband were the first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license in Casper once marriage equality was legalized. But when Andrews was in high school in Douglas, he feared he would never be able to come out in his home state. When he was bullied in 10th grade, he “closeted up.”
“I went and put up a bunch of photos of Sports Illustrated models all over my walls, trying to play it off even more so that I was straight,” Andrews said. “So when people would come over and they’d see my room, they’d be like, ‘Oh well he’s got Sports Illustrated swimsuit ladies all over his room.’ You know, you tried to be more butch and have a girlfriend. That was always hard, to have a girlfriend. To be honest, I would only stay with them for so long because it wasn’t what I wanted.”
When he did come out in 2004, his mom hung up the phone. He was effectively disowned by his parents for six months, and they rarely spoke. He skipped Thanksgiving that year but agreed to come for Christmas Eve.
As he was leaving his parents’ Douglas home to drive back to Casper, his mom followed him out to his car.
They spoke, and Andrews told her that “you may not believe you’ll be with me in the afterlife, but I want to spend as much time with you here in this life.”
That was the turning point. After that, their relationship repaired.
Andrews’ finding acceptance with his family wasn’t isolated. The decline in attendance at Wyoming Equality events after the murder slowly reversed, Corrigan said, and the community here built back up. Nationwide, acceptance toward the LGBTQ community has grown generally since 1998.
Part of that culture change is linked to Shepard’s death. In the days after, a number of celebrities spoke out against the murder on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Among them was Ellen DeGeneres, whose television show had been cancelled months before, slightly more than a year after she came out as a lesbian.
“The national change was due partly to Matthew’s death,” said Christi Boggs, a co-chair of the Shepard Symposium on Social Justice at the University of Wyoming. “I mean, it’s all tied. The change, nationally, and the discussions that happened nationally because of that murder matter nationally.”
Wyoming wasn’t impervious to that nationwide change. The state is more accepting now, too, Andrews said. He feels it in the schools. When he was a student, he wasn’t out and knew a couple of students who “everybody knew” were gay but also hadn’t come out. Now, there are out students across the district.
But progress here hasn’t come smoothly, and the national shift over the past 20 years hasn’t been led by Wyoming.
Same-sex couples have been able to marry here since 2014. However, that came not because of a choice made by Wyoming but rather because a federal judge struck down the state’s gay marriage ban.
“I know that out of the state of Wyoming, and on a federal level, you do see the effects (of Shepard’s murder),” the anonymous Natrona County High junior said. “But nothing really significant came of it in Wyoming. Things really just stayed the same. We didn’t have our first gay pride parade until two years ago or a year ago. And I can think of only two, maybe three major gay icons or couples in the state of Wyoming that really stick out to me.
“Wyoming is very much lagging behind everybody else with it, even though something so huge happened here.”
Chris Folsom, the events coordinator for UW LGBTQ student group Spectrum, moved to Wyoming from California and has found that in-state LGBTQ students often lack home support.
“They seem really disadvantaged,” Folsom said, “because a lot of times they’ve been kicked out of their house or they don’t get emotional support from their family.”
Outside of two local nondiscrimination ordinances and four resolutions, policy has not been a part of Wyoming’s response to the Shepard murder.
Gage Williams, a founder of Out in Wyoming, said he hasn’t faced much systemic discrimination as a queer man in Wyoming, but nothing short of legislation will ever make that “what if” go away.
“Like, my jobs have been great, school has been great, housing has been great,” he said. “None of that has ever been a problem. The only thing is, though, there’s nothing that actually protects those things. So, even though I don’t feel threatened, I know that that’s one of the reasons that I could not get something.”
Connolly said most straight people in Wyoming probably think you couldn’t be fired for your sexuality. But LGBTQ Wyomingites know there’s no protection.
“What that means is you have people living in fear, and when you live in fear, that’s not a good life,” she said. “And in a state that wants economic development, you are saying, ‘We’re not protecting all of your employees in the state where Matthew Shepard was murdered.’”
“A lot of the (LGBTQ) people that I’ve talked to, they’re scared sometimes,” Williams added. “They don’t want to call the police. They don’t want to report an assault or anything because nothing’s going to happen. It’s going to be just chalked up to another whatever. And I mean, that’s not bashing any law enforcement agency, but that’s how people feel in Wyoming.”
Even in 2018, Corrigan, the Wyoming Equality co-founder, is pessimistic about the prospects of being LGBTQ in the Equality State outside of a handful of cities.
“I suspect that if you live in a really small town in Wyoming, you probably aren’t out,” he said. “Or maybe you’re only out to your very closest friends, even to this day. ... In a town the size of Casper or Cheyenne, if your landlord finds out you’re gay, you can probably still find another place to live. But if you’re in some small community of 5,000 or something, word probably spreads pretty fast.”
Jim Osborn, a friend of Shepard’s and the Title IX coordinator at the University of Wyoming, adds that bigger cities can often translate to more resources for members of the LGBTQ community. But it’s not out of the question to be out in small-town Wyoming anymore, he said.
“I’m pretty darn comfortable here in Laramie going out to dinner with my husband and my child and going out on the rare occasions we get to go out on a date night,” Osborn said. “I’m pretty comfortable. But at the same time, I’m just as comfortable going to back to my husband’s home town of Kaycee, and we’ll go down to the bars there and be just as comfortable.”
Sometimes, though, the destination for members of the Wyoming LGBTQ community is neither small towns nor big cities — a relative term in the nation’s least populous state.
Williams, the Out in Wyoming co-founder, said the organization’s board has changed four times due to people moving out of the state. He said he has seen “tons of people” leave Wyoming because it does not offer enough for the LGBTQ community.
“I mean, myself included,” said Williams, who anticipates leaving after earning his bachelor’s degree. “I’m doing all this work to try and progress Wyoming forward, but I’ve met too many brick walls. I still want to leave. I will always love Wyoming, and I love Casper. I would totally come back. But it doesn’t have what I need, and I don’t know how to provide what I need and what everyone else needs.”
Because Shepard’s legacy has such a lasting resonance, it makes him both more than a person and less of one. The complexities of his life, his personality and aspirations, have been diminished by the symbol he became.
“I mean, I hate to say it, but Matthew Shepard is no longer a person,” the anonymous Natrona County High junior said. “It’s an event.”
But that might be changing, Connolly said.
“His legacy among activists is both hope and compassion as well as a call to action,” she said. “But as time has gone on, what has come out more is of an understanding of Matthew Shepard as the man that he was. … Who did we lose in this world? He was a young man, a boy and a young man, that was — according to everyone who knew him — he was outgoing, he was vivacious, he was a dreamer, he loved life, right? And he had plans for ... working in international human rights.
“Who knows who he would’ve been? Saying ‘hope and compassion’ feels too trite, but that’s honestly part of what this discussion should be: wondering about who this man would be, to think about him, not just the icon of homophobic murder.”
Rihanna Kelver feels the legacy of Shepard personally. She is a transgender woman in Laramie, where she has lived for the past 10 years.
“I’m as old as the anniversary of the death,” she said. “I was born in 1998.”
Kelver, who transitioned during her junior year, ran for student body president at Laramie High School before she was a senior, a rarity at the school, according to English teacher Nicki Bondurant. At the age of 18, while still a student at Laramie High, Kelver announced her candidacy for a seat on the Albany County school board.
She didn’t win either contest but said the school board race was close. She is considering another campaign in 2020.
Equal rights for transgender students were a central part of her campaign, which took place not long after the question of which restrooms transgender students should be allowed to use became a national fixation.
Kelver, now a student at the University of Wyoming, cannot separate Shepard’s legacy from her own.
“Like I said, I grew up in the shadow,” she said. “I’m as old as the murder. And so, although I didn’t experience it, it plays a huge part in my narrative as a trans woman in Laramie. And a lot of the time, it drove me because the only thing I thought is, ‘I don’t want that to ever happen again here.’
“And that’s the only thing I’ve ever thought of when I did the school board stuff — when I advocate and when I take any opportunity to publicly speak — is I want it to reinforce my narrative as somebody who’s alive and living these struggles, so that the only narratives we don’t have are individuals who’ve been killed, and it’s just like, ‘Oh, this is terrible.’
“I want to be a living narrative so it doesn’t happen.”
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