Queer in the Cowboy State

By on June 16, 2015

Gay marriage is a start, but Wyoming has a long way to go

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Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Don’t ask, don’t tell. That’s how Bettie Taylor of Jackson, Wyoming, describes the atmosphere for members of the LGBT community in the Equality State. She said she shies away from talking about her sexual orientation with anyone outside the confines of close friends and family.

Taylor has been living in Jackson Hole for four years, working as an activities coordinator at the Senior Center. Most of that time she spent in an on- and off- relationship with a woman she met in college.  Coming to Jackson from the liberal West Coast wasn’t easy for the pair.

“Lauren [Taylor’s girlfriend] was always more worried about the way people looked at us than I was. I just always thought, ‘if you don’t like it, deal with it,’” she said.

Taylor said of course Jackson could probably be more supportive, but the state as a whole is legislatively out of date. “It’s the 21st century, and it’s like this state is hiding under a rock,” she said. “I would love to see Wyoming not be the last state equality-wise to pass things.”

Taylor is not alone. Other members of Jackson and greater Wyoming say they are fed up feeling oppressed and ostracized. According to the Human Rights Campaign, Wyoming scores in the bottom tier for LGBT rights and protections nationally. Without hate crime or anti-discrimination laws, as well as the House’s passage of a religious freedom referendum, the “Equality State” is not considered very LGBT-friendly.

Historically, the population of Wyoming reflects the legislation concerning attitudes toward the LGBT community.

Jeran Artery is the chairman of Wyoming Equality, an advocacy group that works to protect the rights of members of the LGBT community. He has been pivotal in the campaign for marriage equality. During one of Wyoming’s most formative legislative times, he was called upon to act as a plaintiff, giving oral arguments in favor of marriage equality. He continued the effort despite numerous hurtles and defeats, turning much of his attention to educating the populace of Wyoming. As the Director of Wyoming Unites for Marriage, he was able to channel his position and energies into positive change, opening up the doors not just to marriage equality but to social acceptance and safety for members of the LGBT community. Growing up in small town Wheatland, Wyoming, Artery pretended to be something he was not in order to feel accepted and safe. He didn’t feel comfortable coming out until eight years ago – at the age of 38. While Wyoming recently became the 32nd state to enact same-sex marriage, Artery is concerned that the ball might stop rolling there.

“For those of us who love to call Wyoming home, there’s still a lot of work to do.” he said. “It just seems like marriage is the big sexy thing that people like to talk about. And of course the progress we made is just fantastic. I am so proud of how far we have come, but you can still be fired for being gay, and it’s really tough for same-sex couples to adopt. As far as equality is concerned, there’s still so many more battles to fight. Let’s not let Wyoming be a ‘married one day, fired the next’ kind of state.”

Institutionalized discrimination

On April 24 the Wyoming House failed to enact a senate-passed anti-discrimination bill that would have extended legal protection to the LGBT community when faced with discrimination in house and the workforce. After serious debate on the floor, the House voted against adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes with a closing vote of 33 opposing and 26 in support.

Without anti-discrimination laws, businesses may fire or refuse to hire members of the LGBT community based solely on orientation; there also is no recourse from discrimination in juror selection, public childcare, public bathrooms, and other publicly-funded facilities.

The heavily amended bill met serious hostility when brought to the Labor, Health, and Social Services Meeting in the House. Rep. Harlan Edmonds (R), of Cheyenne, was evicted from the meeting after asking if the date the bill was to be enacted could be moved from July 1 to “the day hell freezes over.” Further ad absurdum arguments on his part led to jokes about adding pedophiles to the list of protected classes of people.

Jackson Rep. Andy Schwartz (D), was a major supporter of the anti-discrimination legislation before it died in the House. “I was disappointed that [the bill] failed of course, but lots of bills fail. What I was really disappointed in was the conversation,” he said. “You have to recognize that the House has a gay woman and man in it, and acting like these people don’t deserve rights, it was ridiculous. There was just so much ignorant speech.  A lot of the discussion was about bathrooms. The bathrooms, the bathrooms, what we would do about bathrooms!”

“To me, it’s basic human rights. That’s it,” Schwartz continued. “I was just flabbergasted. This isn’t about religion or race, and people could just not make a distinction. It was just plain discrimination.”

Artery acknowledged that education is lacking in this state, and that an educated populace is a tolerant one. Getting people to understand is at the forefront of Wyoming Equality’s campaign, because, as Artery said, “People don’t like discriminating against the people they love and care about,” one of many reasons he too was upset with the language used in discussions concerning the anti-discrimination bill. He recognizes that, in so many instances, it is the detachment between concept and actual human being that enables people to be discriminatory. This attitude is showing up collectively with one local group. Aretery explained:

“WyWatch is this very vocal group that keeps showing up at committee hearings.” Artery said. “They’re very religious, very conservative, and very well funded.”  The group classifies members of the LGBT community as sexual deviants, child molesters, intravenous drug users, and HIV producers, all of whom were going straight to hell. “And they do their best to try to convince legislators that the majority of Wyoming agrees with them.”   

While historically Wyoming Governor Matt Mead has been resistant to same-sex marriage, he said he is disappointed in the legislature’s failure to include LGBT protections in Wyoming’s anti-discrimination laws. Mead’s spokesperson Seth Waggener, issued this statement on the governor’s behalf: “Workplace discrimination due to sexual orientation or gender identity is wrong – Governor Mead wants people working. The governor believes people should be employed based on their merits versus their sexual identity.”

Schwartz said this legislative failure was one of the most important facing the LGBT community today. “It’s a fundamental right we’re talking about. We’re just giving these people the same rights as everyone else in the workplace. I don’t even think it’s something that should be argued,” he said.

Wyo. cities making strides

Just a few weeks ago, on May 16, Laramie made national headlines when city officials there took LGBT legislative equality into their own hands. In the hometown of Matthew Shepard, the fight for equality wore on as Laramie passed its own version of the anti-discrimination bill.

Laramie’s city ordinance extends legal protection to LGBT persons facing discrimination in housing, employment, and public places.

This ordinance has moved other Wyoming locales to action. During Lander’s June 7 LGBT Pride Picnic, a campaign was launched to educate people about non-discrimination city ordinances based on Laramie’s bill. They are currently educating, raising awareness, and distributing templates so that town officials can transition easily into being non-discrimination communities.

Artery said Wyoming Equality has fielded several inquiries from other cities asking how they too can take part in this movement.

“Here we saw Laramie pass a city ordinance and it was exciting, because so many other communities have reached out to say, we want to do what Laramie has done,” Artery said. “It’s just good to know that when the next anti-discrimination law goes before the legislature in the future, we’ll have all of these places to point to where we can say, look, we didn’t have to redo the bathrooms or redefine the dress code. Everyone’s not running around wearing sparkly pants, and these people have protection. This legislation works.”

Wyoming Equality has coordinators working with the communities of Cheyenne, Lander and Jackson.

Mayor Sara Flitner has personally requested a non-discrimination template in order to draft a bill that will protect the citizens of Jackson. She said she is proud of the Laramie City Council for its forethought and ambition to protect its citizens.

“We’re going for basic fairness, and people deserve this,” she said of pursuing a similar ordinance in Jackson. “Our desire is people in the workforce are treated the same. The standards applied to each of us should be based on job performance, honesty, and character.”

As was previously enumerated on in a February Planet feature, “Homegrown Equality,” the Jackson Town Council already has legislation on the books protecting employees of the town of Jackson from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Flitner’s meritocracy is still very much in the staging process, she admits. “I have requested a template, and as far as I can tell, it seems like a very straightforward process. We’re taking an ordinance that the Town Council has enacted, and I applaud the town council – thought leaders as usual – and we need to extend this provision community wide. What I have to do is understand what the mechanisms look like.  I just need to make sure the language is right, and there are some things that people have already learned as they have crafted the language of this bill [in other areas], and we are going to take advantage of that, so that we can do it right the first time.”

Flitner was hesitant about giving a a timeline for the ordinance’s adoption but said that ideally she would like to see something on the books by the end of the summer.

Mark Houser, member of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG, said he believes this legislation is the next logical step for Jackson and the whole of Wyoming. “The town council embodied the spirit of [Laramie’s new] legislation with their own policies identifying that sexual orientation would additionally not be discriminated against. So the time is right for communities across Wyoming to make that move,” he said.

Taking an active role in the making of public policy is extremely important, Houser stressed. “Like all social change that happens through the legislative process, being in touch with legislators, commissioners, and town council members is the most singularly effective action that people can take. “

Houser hosted Jackson’s first LGBT pride picnic Saturday in the hopes of uniting the community around the ideas of tolerance and acceptance. He is very proud of the way Jackson has grown to accept minorities. “There’s been a significant shift in this community to address social and economic injustice,” he said. “In just the past few years there has been a move for greater acceptance of the Hispanic community as well as the LGBT community and we hope it continues to move forward, so that we might see further equality and justice in the future.”

Jeran Artery (right), with his husband Mike Bleakley during their 2014 wedding in Maui. (Photo: Tad Craig)

Jeran Artery (right), with his husband Mike Bleakley during their 2014 wedding in Maui. (Photo: Tad Craig)

Legislation sending us backwards

Lack of workplace discrimination protection isn’t the only way legislation is working against the LGBT community. The Religious Freedoms Restoration Act passed in the House on February 2. Prior to its amendments, the act would have allowed county clerks to refuse issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples based on conflict with personal religious belief even after same-sex marriage became constitutionally protected a few months before.

The amended version of RFRA, formally known as House Bill 83, would still uphold a business’s choice not to serve same-sex couples or transgender persons based on “strongly held religious conviction” with the exclusion of state employees, such as county clerks. This bill would also include a church’s right to deny birth control to women as a part of their healthcare plan.

Schwartz thinks that RFRA could be classified as “reactionary legislation.” He sees it as compromising legislation that puts legal discrimination on the books. “I guess it’s funny,” he said, “that I think social legislation falls outside the realm of what the legislature should be doing. For being a Teton County democrat, I think there should be less government interference in the life of the citizen. But the religious right believes that we all should be religious right. Despite this notion of liberal or conservative, I feel this legislature shouldn’t be legislating discrimination, which is essentially what [RFRA] does.”

RFRA has yet to see floor time in front of the Senate. Schwartz is hopeful the Bill will not become law. “I don’t think it will pass in the Senate,” he said. “It’s all about the election in 2016. A number of older senators probably won’t run again.” Schwartz says this upcoming election year is critical for LGBT rights. He is encouraging citizens to turn out to vote in order to make a difference, and to be supportive of forward thinking candidates even if they’re not in that citizen’s specific district.

No recourse for hate

Wyoming’s own Matthew Shepard to this day is cited as the key reason why members of the LGBT community are in need of specific protections. Just 16 years ago, on October 12, 1998, 21-year-old Shepard was tied to a fence, tortured, and then beaten, later dying from his injuries, just outside of Laramie, Wyoming, allegedly for his sexual orientation.

Shepard’s story has become a defining tragedy in American politics, sparking a national debate about LGBT rights and protections that has carried with it national change. The national hate crime law, known as the Matthew Shepard Act, was adopted in October 2009. This Congressional Act expanded the 1969 Federal Hate-Crime Law to include “crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.”

Even though the national hate crime law is named after Shepard, Wyoming has yet to adopt its own hate crime laws.  In fact, the state of Wyoming is one of only four states in the union without specific protections for crimes perpetrated against minorities. The legislature in Wyoming has voted that all crimes should be treated equitably under the law, not giving special attention to crimes committed against persons based solely on creed, race, gender, sexual orientation, or other class.

Artery considers this a black mark on Wyoming’s legislative record. “We’re The Matthew Shepard State, and whether that is deserved or warranted, we have to overcome that,” he said “We’ve got to become the Equality State again. There’s a group here that doesn’t want change or diversity. They want to leave Wyoming as a good old boys club where nothing ever changes.”

Schwartz agrees that Wyoming’s lack of hate crime legislation is unpardonable. “I can hardly think of a plausible reason why we wouldn’t have any,” he said. Schwartz iterated that he believes the lack of hate crime legislation is due to the fact that “Wyoming just doesn’t have a lot of respect for the LGBT community.”

Passive acceptance of gay marriage

In April 2000, Vermont became the first state in the union to give the same rights to same-sex couples as heterosexual couples. A decade-and-a-half later Wyoming accepted same-sex marriage in 2014. It was the 32nd state to amend its constitution to include marriage equality.

This is a relatively new phenomenon in Wyoming. As late as January 2013, legislators attempted to constitutionally define marriage as “a civil contract between two natural persons.” The bill was defeated by a margin of 17-41 a month later, leaving the decision to constitutionally protect same-sex marriage up to the justice system.

The district courts picked up the case after same-sex marriage was unable to pass legislatively. In October of last year, Federal Judge Scott Skavdahl ruled in favor of marriage equality protection based upon the 10th Circuit Court’s precedents in similar cases in Utah and Oklahoma.

Wyoming passively accepted marriage equality on October 17, 2014, when Governor Matt Mead acknowledged that the state would not appeal the court’s decision.

Skavdahl acknowledged that marriage equality was not widely accepted in Wyoming, with a popular support rate of 46 percent. “There is undoubtedly a public interest in having the will of Wyoming’s voters and legislators carried out, but that interest is overridden by the public’s interest in protection of fundamental rights.”

How this affects your neighbors

Ryan Lewis moved out West from the Bible Belt three years ago, where he has happily settled into the Jackson community. Lewis says moving to Jackson has been liberating. He left a place where he could not be himself as a bisexual man (though he qualifies that such labels are archaic classifications that lead to stereotyping and misunderstandings), and found a place where he feels his “personal life has blossomed.”

Juxtaposed against the conservative, religious environment of his childhood, Lewis said, “I feel like I’ve come into my own since moving West. I find people to be accepting for the most part, my confidence has grown, and I am much more comfortable with myself and the social environment in Jackson.”

To Lewis’ knowledge, he has never been discriminated against in the workforce due to his sexual orientation, but socially he acknowledges that he has faced some censure, especially concerning the flippant language people use to describe him. “The fact that one could degrade someone to one word does make me sad,” he said, “because we are all so much more than the labels [by which] others choose to define us.”

Lewis’ real hope is that all of the recent attention paid to the LGBT community will help open pathways of discussion that will broaden people’s understanding. He hopes this discussion, “could be a catalyst for gradual change in human consciousness: that people are damned everyday somewhere for what they practice in their personal [lives].” Lewis dreams of a system that allows employers and employees to do their job based on merit rather than personal life preferences.

Jamie Nickel is new to the valley, having arrived in Jackson just more than eight months ago. She loves Jackson’s nature-conscious, healthy, active, and hardworking population, but she also feels out of place at times.

In this blue collar, conservative cowboy state there certainly are a number of people “stuck in their ways,” she said, that make it very difficult to be a lesbian in the West.

But Nickel said she believes times are changing. She maintains that most of the opposition toward members of the LGBT community stems from an older generation and she attributes the animosity they hold toward the LGBT community to upbringing.

However, Nickel says the rest of the Jackson population is fairly welcoming. Wyoming’s failure to pass anti-discrimination legislation has her wondering though. “Why wouldn’t you protect your brothers and sisters, let alone the people who support and take part in your community?” she asked. “It’s frustrating to work hard just to try to make a living out here, but also to know that I could potentially get fired for being myself? A lesbian? For wanting to hold my girlfriend’s hand? Or to display a small amount of affection? No one wants to feel uncomfortable in the community where they live, work, and play. “

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