WAPITI — When she heard a knock on the door, Colin Monahan figured it had to be about the new garage.
Monahan and her wife, Shannon Lastowski Monahan, had just finished dinner. Their guests had all departed, leaving the couple alone at their log home well off the main road in the rural community of Wapiti, a village of a few hundred in northwest Wyoming. Colin had just finished installing a new, pre-fabricated garage on their property, painted in a shade of brown to complement the waving grasses of the surrounding valley.
Donning their masks and opening the door, the couple were greeted by five people standing on their porch, there to discuss a “neighborhood issue” — presumably, Colin thought, the garage.
It would have been a strange complaint. The couple had received permission to install it from the subdivision’s management, and the area’s lack of a homeowners’ association made concerns over aesthetics questionable at best. The iconic Smith Mansion — a twisting structure looming on a bluff overlooking Highway 14 — is visible from the couple’s porch, while the subdivisions surrounding them feature a broad mix of architectural styles that had sprouted amid a flood of new residents discovering the Wyoming countryside.
The garage, as it turned out, wasn’t the problem.
Looking over the group, the Monahans — a same-sex couple originally from the Chicago area — recognized a familiar face, a man who the couple said had previously harassed them on social media. Both Colin and Shannon, residents of the subdivision four years now, quickly came to realize that the conversation was never about a garage, and was never intended to be.
It was about Colin, who dresses masculine but, in her own words, could be seen as either male or female. She goes by “Colleen” as often as she does “Colin.”
“One of the women said to us, ‘Your kind is not welcome here. You are not welcome in Cody Country and you need to leave,’” Shannon recalled in an interview shortly after the October incident. “She told Colin, ‘You pretend to be a man, and you need to leave.’”
The incident sparked a conversation that reverberated through Wapiti and into the greater Park County community, including Cody, a popular tourist town of 10,000.
Some businesses made clear their support for the LGBTQ community. Sunlight Sports, a sporting goods store on Cody’s main strip, declared on its social media pages that bigots were not welcome inside.
The owners, Wes and Melissa Allen, stressed that they believed that 99% of county residents are good people. But they had an unblinking message for the rest.
“If you hate your neighbors so much for who they are — who they love, the color of their skin, where they were born, where they worship, or any of the other things that make up that person — that you need to treat them differently or harass them or make them feel unsafe in their own home, don’t come into our business,” they wrote.
Other businesses began stocking merchandise in solidarity with the couple, producing stickers and buttons with rainbow flags and slogans supportive of the LGBTQ community. But that, in turn, touched off a wave of bigotry on social media, directed at the couple as well as others who publicly supported them. On one local Facebook group, a man described the couple as “liberal socialist democratic homosexual transvestites from Chicago” who “hate this country.” Suggestions of the need for a hate crime bill were described in a letter to the local newspaper as “dangerous” and “Orwellian,” while others cast doubt that the incident happened at all.
“It leads to social justice warriors proclaiming far and wide that Wapiti and all of Wyoming is a racist and homophobic state and needs hate crime laws enacted because all allegations must be immediately and totally believed,” one woman wrote on another Facebook group.
Isolated among a few individuals or not, that response was seen by some as a symptom of a rage brewing among a vocal minority of Park County during a time of dramatic change. But that bigotry also prompted others in the community to stand up and say, “Enough.”
The question is, will it be?
“We have employees and friends and neighbors who don’t fit the ‘white Caucasian’ profile who have been made to feel uncomfortable in our town in recent months,” Wes Allen said in an interview. “Our perception was that it was getting worse. And we’ve already been having conversations in our community when this happened. But this was the time we knew we had to come out and say something. Because if we weren’t going to say something publicly when something bad happened, we have no right to say anything at all.”
A community in flux
Nestled in the foothills at the end of a winding maze of dirt and gravel, the cabin shared by Colin, Shannon and their two dogs doesn’t stand out much from the rest of the homes in the Cody Country subdivision, which sits between Cody and Yellowstone National Park.
From the small porch of the couple’s slice of land, a herd of elk could be seen resting in the distant prairie. Around them, snow-capped peaks stretch around the periphery of the Shoshone River Valley and the North Fork Highway below.
It’s an easy place to disappear in, and plenty have over the years, drawn by the promise of seclusion and the region’s beautiful surroundings.
Manda Siebert’s family has owned a gas station in Wapiti for decades. In that time she has watched the area grow from a minuscule farming community into a tapestry of subdivided ranchland and new construction, with each new subdivision constructed over the past two decades as controversial as the next. “Cultural issues,” as they were called at the time, were of concern even in 2004, when residents raised an uproar over the development of the Copperleaf subdivision, with one man saying at the time that it was not the subdivision itself that was controversial but “the product anticipated which makes it so contentious.”
“There’s been a little bit of an uproar from people upset that more and more people are moving here,” said Siebert, whose business sits across the street from a former hayfield. “But when I was a kid, this was all open. None of this was subdivided. If somebody hadn’t sold their land, those people would not be living here, either. You have to put the shoe on the other foot: If you were living in these big cities and wanted something different, wouldn’t you want to move out here?”
That change has been accelerating in the region. When a Star-Tribune reporter called the Park County planning office last month, an official there said that inquiries concerning building permits and subdivisions have roughly tripled this year, while the rate of home sales among COVID-19 refugees — like similarly attractive corners of the Mountain West — continues to outpace annual averages. According to reporting by the Enterprise, 2020 presented one of the office’s busiest years on record, with the office processing more applications for building permits and subdivisions through the month of July than it did all of last year.
That, in turn, has created tension among some who fear the new arrivals are spoiling the promise of Wyoming.
“There’s a really strong sentiment of resentment when people are buying property here,” Shannon said. “When you’re used to having the view a certain way and then people move in… There’s even been someone — we don’t know who — who has been tearing up the ‘for sale’ signs by the gate.”
Cody Mayor Matt Hall said the first tinges of such a change were felt with the arrival of rapper Kanye West last year. That feeling, the Cody native says, has been amplified by conservative-leaning newcomers in the last few years who believed they would find a city of like-minded people waiting for them upon their arrival. New businesses in town are attracting new residents as well, changing the fabric of the community.
“I talk to the police chief a lot about making sure that we’re managing people’s reactions to things in a way that is going to be fair for everyone, that we’re not going to pull somebody over just because they don’t look like you or anything like that,” Hall said. “It’s interesting to have to grapple with those kind of issues.”
That feeling has bled into the local politics as well. The area’s Republican primary between Rep. Sandy Newsome and former Hot Springs County Clerk Nina Webber featured some of the most vicious politics seen anywhere in Wyoming this election cycle. Meanwhile, members of the community marching in solidarity with the national Black Lives Matter movement earlier this summer were met with armed residents wary of perceived threats from outside agitators that never coalesced. Community Facebook pages with names such as the “Wapiti Whisper” or “Cody Chit Chat” have been increasingly dominated by political discussions fueled by rage and contempt, with dissenting voices being shouted down.
“They’re just really hard to read,” said Sarah Growney, a local business owner and a Cody resident of nearly two decades who has been an active supporter of the Monahans. “It just creates a culture of acceptance for that kind of language or hate. My honest-to-God opinion is that we are not talking about a lot of people, but they’re just very loud. Most people who live in Wapiti or Cody aren’t bad. I think most are good. It’s just the ones who express this kind of hatred are really loud.”
It’s contributed to a shift in sensibilities local leaders say are as much a byproduct of the current pandemic as it is a symptom of a greater demographic shift in the Equality State. Longtime Wyoming residents such as Hall say his community has grown increasingly conservative in the Trump era, and in particular since the tail end of Gov. Matt Mead’s administration, a trend residents say has been exacerbated by outsiders attracted to the area’s natural beauty as much as the state’s deep red politics.
But some people haven’t realized just how diverse their community has become. When counterprotests emerged in the wake of June’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations, Hall found himself playing intermediary between marchers and armed residents unconvinced that a fellow Wyomingite could have different politics than they did.
“I was talking to some friends of mine who estimated at least 70% of that crowd was from outside of the area,” said Hall, a lifelong Cody resident. “Almost every one of them was from the Bighorn Basin. I said, ‘Instead of sitting there with your gun waiting for them to give you a reason to try and shoot them, why don’t you try talking to them?’ We all like to live here, we all like to fish and hunt here. I mean … the commonalities probably exist way more than probably the disparities.”
Small towns, long streets
Wyoming is often characterized as a “small town with long streets,” both for its small population and the neighborly disposition of its residents. Given that reality, how can some people be so blind to their neighbors or unwilling to accept people who might be different?
It’s a paradox that some, like Allen, the shop owner whose social media post provoked a considerable response, have come to understand.
“Wyoming’s always been so lightly populated that you don’t get to really choose your neighbors,” he said. “If you’re going to survive here, you need to develop this thing where you can get along with everybody. If you are mad because your neighbor was one thing or another and you only had like three neighbors, and when things got bad if you would antagonize them … there would be nobody for you to fall back on. And so the culture has become one of tolerance in general.”
Park County already has a small but vibrant LGBTQ community, and one that existed prior to the migration that’s brought many new faces to the area of late.
One of the members of that community is Nikki Flowers, a Cody resident who moved to the area as a high school sophomore nearly two decades ago. In 2014, Flowers became one of the first women to be granted a same-sex marriage license in Park County with her spouse, Desiree, whom she first met in the halls of Cody High School. Even with same-sex marriage controversial in Wyoming at the time, Flowers said she received little pushback in the community save for her mother and the county clerk at the time, who refused to perform the ceremony.
Then the incident in Wapiti happened.
“It hurt my heart,” she said. “What happened to that couple was just terrifying. I mean, I don’t know what I would do. If something like that happened to me… It’s scary. And I’ve never felt scared in this town.”
Newcomers still find themselves wary of the state’s legacy, still tainted by memories of the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. Growney, who has two fathers, dealt with it the first time her dad came to visit, fearful of the way he was dressed and of those who weren’t accepting of people like him. Over time, however, her fear subsided with the growing understanding of her neighbors, who had regularly begun to interact with her fathers and over time began to understand that the men were just like them in a plethora of ways.
“I’m a believer in the idea that ignorance breeds fear,” Growney said. “These folks are anti-whatever they are because they don’t know someone gay, they’ve never lived with black people, or they’ve never been away to school. Their whole existence has been here, in Wyoming.”
Changing the conversation
But sheer exposure is not a sufficient antidote for bigotry.
In a converted greenhouse in the atrium of Cody High School, Amy Gerber — a science teacher of 32 years — had just finished a consultation with a student who had run into issues at home when a reporter arrived to talk with Gerber.
For the past several years, she has served as faculty adviser for the school’s Gay Straight Alliance, a role she developed as a way to provide a safe space for students who felt they did not have one either in the classroom or at home.
A mother to a gay son, Gerber herself saw bigotry on its face when a group of her 14-year-old son’s classmates threw a slur at him as they drove through the parking lot.
“It just broke my heart,” she said. “That’s the last thing you want as a mom. You don’t want people to be mean to your kid. You want people to care about you and care about your kid, and not judge them for being gay.”
Her son asked her not to respond, fearing it would put an even bigger target on his back. But she wanted to do something.
Ten years later — long after her son had graduated — she decided to hang a rainbow flag in her room, a sign of solidarity for a group of students she knew existed but had no means of connecting with. That small show of solidarity, she said, eventually grew into the school’s GSA, which today counts several dozen students among its ranks.
It was an unthinkable prospect during the time her son was in school. She knew several members of the local school board would fight her on it, while the effort itself encouraged opponents to come out of the woodwork. One caller into a morning talk show at the time, she recalled, asked why the school needed a club where “boys were liking boys and girls were liking girls.”
“It was ridiculous. But that was the perception,” Gerber said. “For me, I wasn’t sure whether that was the perception of the whole community, or if it was just a handful of people who have this type of worldview and are just really vocal about it? You really just don’t know.”
The incident in Wapiti drew similar feelings. After being quoted in a local news article about what happened, Gerber was barraged with hate mail and comments on Facebook disparaging her, prompting a former student of hers — the one who helped her start the GSA — to tell community members that the hatred he saw emerging was precisely the Cody he knew.
“I would love to say collectively as a community, there’s way more of us who support the live-and-let-live mentality, that you’re welcome here,” Gerber said. “Gay, straight, black, white doesn’t matter. Like, you’re welcome. But the truth is, even if it’s not the majority, there is a fraction of our community that is just loud, and makes the community seem like it stands for something that it doesn’t.”
Several weeks after the incident, Colin and Shannon are both in good spirits, but still on edge.
Colin, a hunter and an owner of several guns, was just days removed from getting fingerprinted for a concealed carry permit, a little extra security should the worst happen. What worries her most, she said, is the prospect of what won’t happen.
In the years since Shepard’s murder set off a national movement for hate crime legislation, Wyoming lawmakers have failed to enact a similar law despite the pleas of various nonpartisan commissions, small businesses and even the LGBTQ community itself. Critics of hate crime legislation say the state’s constitution is sufficient to protect the rights of everyone.
But Colin, who has faced hate up close, doesn’t feel that protection.
“The bigger story is this culture here, and ultimately, why Wyoming needs hate crime legislation,” she said. “They don’t think that they have an issue, and yet they repeatedly have issues here.”
Still, there are growing signs of tolerance and support. People in Cody and Wapiti banded together in their own way to reject what had happened in their communities. A conservative family near the couple brought them fresh vegetables. Businesses and community members have been vocal in their support. Across from the town hall, a rainbow flag could be seen hanging from a porch. Down the street, Growney’s gift shop, The Thistle, had already sold out of one batch of pro-LGBTQ stickers.
So what happens now? Will the incident that provoked so much debate and consternation lead to real change?
Colin Monahan and Shannon Lastowski Monahan shared their story, and the community stood up to respond. They just hope that the risk they took was not made in vain, and that their experience — a couple singled out for who they love — underscores the need for a greater level of protection for people like them.
“We can’t be protected by weapons,” Shannon said. “We have an alarm system, surveillance cameras, all of that, but that can only help so much. It gives you a small sense of reducing the risks. But the courts aren’t going to protect us. … It’s just a simple trespass. I guess I just never realized before how vulnerable we are.”
Correction: A story published in the 11/30/2020 edition of the Star-Tribune stated that Rep. Sandy Newsome, R-Cody, planned to co-sponsor a hate crime bill in the upcoming legislative session. Newsome has since stated that she has decided not to be a prime sponsor on a hate crime bill.