THE BUZZ 3: The Hope For Progress

By on October 25, 2016

A new report illuminates Jackson’s strides and downfalls in protecting LGBTQ citizens.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – This month marks the 18th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s murder, a hate crime that devastated a community and mobilized lawmakers across the nation to draft protections for LGBTQ people. On the October 12 anniversary, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation Jason Marsden noted: “We have come a very long way since that fateful night in Laramie 18 years ago.”

Also this month, The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) released the Municipal Equality Index, which quantifies Marsden’s statement—it rates cities across the country on how they engage with and protect LGBTQ citizens. The criteria includes non-discrimination laws, protections for employees, municipal services, law enforcement, and cities’ overall relationships with the LGBT community. Jackson received 17 out of a possible 100 points. The score, higher than all other Wyoming towns barring Laramie, offers some level of optimism to advocates here, but it’s also a reminder that there is still much to be done. Nationwide the mean score is 55 points.

The HRC believes that a city can only be fairly judged within its context. So, although Jackson is a small town in a conservative state, this did not guarantee its low score. The group found that the size of a city is not predictive of its score, and that many small cities even in states without supportive laws were able to provide high standards of service and protection for LGBT citizens—Missoula scored 100. In fact, 87 cities from states without any LGBTQ protections still scored in the top half of all the cities rated.

Mark Houser, longtime coordinator of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and the advisor of Jackson Hole High School’s Gay Straight Alliance, relates both to the hope of Marsden’s message, and the discouraging implications of the HRC study. He says he is optimistic and realistic about working for social change in the town and state.

“Twenty years ago, I would not have expected the high school administration to be supportive of the Gay Straight Alliance, to reach out for input from the club … there is a greater openness in the community,” Houser said.

Valley politicos have been at the forefront of non-discrimination statutes at the state-level. In 2015, Sen. Leland Christensen and Rep. Ruth Ann Petroff co-sponsored SF 115, an anti-discrmination bill that passed by an overwhelming majority in Wyoming’s Senate but was shot down in the House. At the town level, Jackson was the first municipality in the state to codify protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in the town’s employee handbook. Though Wyoming joined the rest of the country in legalizing same-sex marriages in 2014, Houser says that before legalization, the state consistently struck down “mean-spirited legislation” that refused to acknowledge same-sex marriages from other states on the basis of unconstitutionality.

Teton County Commissioner Smokey Rhea echoed Houser’s sentiments: “Our community is far ahead of the rest of the state in recognizing the rights of all individuals,” she said. “I have been to many meetings where our elected officials (state and local) have shown up in support of the LGBT community.”

Houser also noted that local leaders have actively supported events such as Pride picnics, and the recent vigil in the Town Square for victims of the Orlando night club shooting earlier this summer. Though the HRC analysis gave Jackson zero out of 22 points in the Law Enforcement category (based on having an LGBTQ police liaison or task force and reporting hate crime statistics to the FBI), Houser does not necessarily believe that any “single number can capture the complexity” of the work being done in a community. He believes that police have long supported the LGBT community and advocated for legislation to protect them. Jackson may not have a liaison, but Houser argues that is a difficult goal to accomplish when there’s not a community center, or a structural way for someone to interact with the LGBT population.

However, while there have been notable legislative shifts in the last couple decades, prejudice among individuals and communities persists. In fact, Houser said, “Those who hold an anti-gay bias may at times become more sophisticated in how they express their displeasure.” Though the progress is marked and hopeful, Houser still doesn’t believe “opinions have shifted as much as might be suggested on the surface.” This is perhaps evidenced partially by the fact that Wyoming has joined nine other states to take exception with the federal mandate to provide restrooms to transgender students.

An update to the Municipality Equality Index is slated for 2018, and Jackson has a chance for a higher score, to grow in every category and truly reflect Mardsen’s belief that “we have come so far since Shepard’s death 18 years ago.”

“We are at a pivotal point with these issues and the arc of social justice crosses generations,” Houser said. “I am hopeful that progress will now take a geometric progression, rather than the linear progression we’ve seen over the past decade.” PJH

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