Queen for More than a Day

By on June 27, 2018

A new generation of LGBTQ people are demanding an out life in Jackson. Will the Old West give way to a more inclusive future?

Lauren Ames and Anne Marie Wells embrace their outness at Jackson Hole Live. (Robyn Vincent)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – She was the tallest person in the room by a mile. Or rather, tallest by 10-inch, black patent leather platform boots.

“Ranch,” the drag queen alter ego of Luke Zender, made an impression at the June 9 JH Pride Dance Party. Dressed in a rainbow tutu and bare-chested with pink duct tape criss-crossing each nipple and white glitter makeup masking her beard, Ranch paraded through the lobby of the Pink Garter Theater like a royal princess. Her boots lifted her to a full seven feet.

Unlike traveling drag performers that have graced Jackson stages, Ranch is homegrown. Zender, a 26-year-old Jackson native, is part of a new generation of LGBTQ people who are striving to make Jackson more inclusive. Instead of assimilating, Zender and his peers seek to be fully themselves, which means not conforming to gender norms and not being quiet about their sexual orientation.

Jackson’s reputation as a blue dot in a red state belies the way in which the community has yet to fully embrace LGBTQ culture. Lesbian, bisexual, gay, trans, and queer people say they regularly face harassment and discrimination in Jackson, and are not protected from being evicted or losing their job for their sexuality. It’s only now that the town is moving forward with a non-discrimination ordinance—a full 20 years after the murder of Matthew Shepard made Wyoming famous for homophobic violence.

Jackson LGBTQ residents report feeling afraid to hold hands, dance, or kiss in public. Others say they have been taunted at bars and public venues. Though Pride picnics have been a staple for four years, the more raucous Pride Dance Party this month was the first of its kind in Jackson—48 years after the first ever U.S. Pride parade rocked the streets of New York City.

While most cosmopolitan locales in the U.S. have evolved with the times to create inclusive environments for LGBTQ people, Jackson has some serious catching up to do. Yes, you can be gay here, just don’t be too gay about it, has been Jackson’s unspoken message. Zender’s generation is changing all that.

A Watershed Moment

Ranch’s Pride appearance was the first time Zender, who identifies as queer, has been on the streets of Jackson in drag. “I was outside on Broadway in full drag in disbelief that it was actually happening,” he said. “It felt like the Twilight Zone.”

For the Pride Dance Party the Pink Garter Theater was festooned in rainbow flags and streamers. The Rose served drinks like “Freddy Mercury’s Moustache” and “Gay on the Beach.” Attendees came in their finest attire—glittery dresses and button down shirts. A lip-sync competition featured men and women in drag, an on-stage male make-out session, and a gigantic pair of inflatable pink lips.

More than 450 people attended the dance. Organizer Andrew Munz avoided tallying how many self-identifying queers were in attendance because it would have run counter to the spirit of the event. “The concept of LGBTQ labeling and identification is meant to be fluid and all-inclusive, and that’s how we wanted the party to be,” he said.

“It was absolutely amazing,” Anne Marie Wells said. A 32-year-old writer and actor, Wells identifies as queer. “The straight people knew it wasn’t for them, that queerness was the point. It felt like going to a gay club in a big city. Couples were comfortable dancing intimately and kissing. People were comfortable wearing queer identified outfits.”

What outfit to wear was a concern for Rafael Lopez, a 25-year-old gay man from Venezuela who moved to Jackson last year with his boyfriend. “I was a little anxious before I left my house,” he said. “I was afraid I was going be bullied on my way to the party. But I got nothing but love and support starting the moment my Uber driver showed up. I think our straight allies here are quite accepting.”

Lopez said he had a blast at the party. The next day the full impact of the event really sank in, how good it felt to be out and free, to be himself in Jackson Hole.

“I woke crying the next morning—out of happiness. I was thinking about all the people who showed up to support the event,” he said.

Lauren Ames, a 26-year-old lesbian, also appreciated the support from straight allies. “Most of my straight friends dressed up and everyone was getting into it,” she said. But the best part was that a few of her friends used the opportunity to come out and declare their queer identity.

“I definitely think the dance was an open door,” she said.

For Ames, finding a safe space to be out did not feel personally revolutionary in the context of the rest of her life. Last year she moved to Jackson from Denver. She’s used to being out and has had the good fortune to find acceptance in the places she has lived.

“I’ve always been confident and open,” she said. “I came out in high school and I wasn’t bullied about it.”

In Colorado, she found plenty of LGBTQ people. When she moved to Jackson, she wasn’t sure what to expect. “I’ve been surprised. I actually have a lot of LGBT friends here,” she said.

But for 30-year-old Munz, who grew up in Jackson and has endured bullying and stigma about being gay, throwing a gay dance party in Jackson was groundbreaking.

“We lifted a veil and allowed people to breathe,” he said.

All night LGBTQ residents approached Munz thanking him for putting on the dance. “I met so many people in the community who I didn’t know before,” he said.

“It’s hard to express to the general Jacksonite the impact this simple dance party had in some people’s lives,” Munz said. “Straight people can hold hands in public or pick someone up at a bar without repercussions.”

Days after the event, Wells reveled in the openness the dance engendered. “I could go up to other women and ask if they wanted to dance and it wasn’t weird or uncomfortable,” she said. “It felt wonderful.”

Beyond comfort, though, the party was a safe space to express queer identity and queer sexuality. Embraced by supportive peers, LGBTQ people could let down their guard, not look over their shoulder, not try to look straight. There is a reason behind their fear.

Violence against people perceived to be LGBTQ is on the rise. According to recent FBI hate crime statistics, hate crimes based on sexual orientation rose by 2 percent from 2015 to 2016, and by 9 percent based on gender identity.

The LGBT advocacy organization Human Rights Campaign (HRC) defines gender identity as “One’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither…One’s gender identity can be the same or different from their sex assigned at birth.” This definition applies to transgender people as well as people who identify as genderqueer or gender fluid. Or who choose no gender at all. People born intersex can also fall under this definition.

The law that criminalizes someone for targeting a victim on the basis of gender identity was first used in 2017 when Joshua Brandon Vallum pleaded guilty to violating the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act by killing Mercedes Williamson in 2015 because she was transgender.

In 2016, 1,076 hate crimes in America were based on sexual orientation bias and 124 were based on gender identity bias. Wyoming, meanwhile, reported zero sexual orientation/gender identity hate crimes in 2016; however, that doesn’t mean they didn’t occur. In its analysis of the 2016 statistics, HRC noted, “these numbers likely represent only a fraction of such cases, given that reporting hate crimes to the FBI is not mandatory.”

In fact, thousands of law enforcement agencies throughout the country did not submit any data. “The lack of mandatory reporting means that the FBI data, while helpful, paints a very incomplete picture of hate crimes against LGBTQ Americans,” HRC stated.

Wyoming’s hate crimes law does not pertain to crimes committed because of a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. Without such a law, the federal hate crimes law is difficult to enforce. The federal authority to investigate and prosecute is limited to hate crimes that affect interstate commerce, a tough hurdle to surmount. The state would not be reliant on the FBI and could more effectively prosecute hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity if it had its own law specifically pertaining to those categories.

 

“In all the town council hearings or legislative meetings I’ve been around the region, I have never heard a government body go to bat for the LGBTQ community the way the Jackson Town Council did.”

Sabrina King, policy director for Wyoming’s American Civil Liberties Union

 

HRC is also pressing Wyoming and other states lacking LGBTQ hate crimes laws to require the collection and reporting of hate crimes data. Without accurate data, crimes may go under-reported or unreported, perpetuating an inaccurate picture of the hate and discrimination LGBTQ people face. Similarly, Jackson’s nondiscrimination ordinance, if passed, will provide a means to file formal discrimination complaints with the town and will aid agencies in tracking this data.

“If the government can gather information about how people in a community are being treated, it can prevent issues,”  Sabrina King, Wyoming ACLU policy director, said.

A small liberal town like Jackson can seem like a relatively safe place to live in general. However, LGBTQ residents report varying levels of feeling safe from homophobic violence. Zender said he was nervous before the dance party.

“I had some reservations going into the event,” he said. “I worried about gay bashing.”

Though the town non-discrimination ordinance will not address incidents of violence, it will be an important statement that the town cares about its LGBTQ residents. People who discriminate against LGBTQ people in housing, employment and public places could be investigated and fined $750 per day.

King attended Town Council’s first reading of the ordinance in which councilors voted 5-0 to move the ordinance forward and delivered strong statements of support. King said such local government support in the region is unprecedented.

“In all the town council hearings or legislative meetings I’ve been around the region, I have never heard a government body go to bat for the LGBTQ community the way the Jackson Town Council did,” King said. “They told the queer community, ‘Not only do we see you and love you and want you in the community, we see what you have to face every day, and we are passing this ordinance because of that, not in spite of it.’”

No Place Like Home

Being seen and accepted is the central issue for LGBTQ people in Jackson, especially if they grew up in the valley. Zender was raised in Jackson and fled at age 16, knowing he was different and no longer feeling at home in his hometown. He lived in cities, delved into his love of dance and performance, and cleaved to an urban gay lifestyle. But when he was 23, he heard the mountains calling.

“I decided it was time for me to come home, spend time in solitude and find out what makes me tick.”

He joined the local dance company, Contemporary Dance Wyoming, and made a splash with his feminine style. A tall man with a delicate septum ring in his nose, Zender exudes an androgynous beauty even when he is in street clothes.

Before he moved back, Zender fit right in living in Los Angeles in his early 20s. His boyfriend was a winner of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, they lived in West Hollywood and everything about his life was “gay, gay, gay.” As liberating at that scene was, there was a dark side. “There was sketchy sex and drugs and a lack of kindness,” he said. “Gay men can be catty in toxic ways.”

Returning to Jackson seemed like a way to get in touch with his essential self. His family is here, and he knew he’d have a solid home base. However, the first months back in Jackson were rough.

“All my insecurities came back,” he said. He started dressing in Jackson guy attire —the ubiquitous plaid shirt, jeans and baseball cap.

“At first I hypermasculinized myself more so I could have some anonymity,” he said. “Which sucks because we should all dress as we want to.”

As Zender developed a chosen family of friends, he has felt comfortable expressing his full self. But the most important journey has been an inner one. “I’ve found what I was looking for,” he said. “I have the ability to speak my truth whenever I need to and to share my feelings.”

Nature has played an important role in Zender’s Jackson life, providing him the space for the self-reflection he was seeking. “Living in the city everything is so electric all the time. It waters down our intuition because we are not listening the way we can listen in nature.”

If a drag queen communing with nature sounds paradoxical, that is only an indication of how strict society’s codes are about who can enjoy nature and how. Zender may not be climbing mountains or braving rapids—though plenty of LGBTQ people do—but his experience is just as valid. Last fall, he and his CDW colleague Michaela Ellison made a beautiful video of themselves dancing in the golden late fall grasses on a hillside. Their eloquent and energetic movement is a welcome departure from Jackson’s ubiquitous ski porn and Go-Pro mountain bike footage.

People who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and gender-fluid live in Jackson for the same reason anyone does: to be close to the land and the wildlife, and to enjoy the kinds of lives a person can have in the mountains. However, LGBTQ people rarely see themselves represented in marketing and other media about the outdoors.

Outdoor adventurist and gay man Mikah Meyer wrote an essay in Outside Online last year discussing the outdoor industry’s shabby record of representing LGBTQ people.

“When rafting down the Green River or hiking on the Appalachian Trail, I don’t feel out of place,” Meyer wrote. “But when I look at outdoor apparel ads, marketing for outdoor vacations, and editorials on how to live the outdoor lifestyle, it’s very apparent that the queerest thing about my nature excursions is simply that I’m there—because the outdoor industry doesn’t show me or any of my openly LGBT tribe in those situations.”

Queering nature, and simultaneously recognizing that queer is natural, may be one of the biggest impacts LGTBQ people make in a place like Jackson, where a hypermasculine, heteronormative version of adventure reigns. For Ash Tallmadge and her wife Alli Rand, moving to Jackson this month means living in tune with nature in a respectful, contemplative way that matches their personalities. Tallmadge leads wildlife tours and Rand works at Valley Bookstore.  

“I love the land here deeply,” Tallmadge said. “It’s a natural sanctuary.”

She remembered her reaction when wolf hunting became legal in Wyoming last year. Though she was living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the news hit her hard. “It hurt my heart,” she said. “I feel connected to wolves because they have a right to be there and not killed for who they are and what they are. I felt a relationship to that. Every creature deserves to be where they are and what they are.”

For Tallmadge, 32, the move is a return. Like Zender, she was raised in Jackson, and her family dates back 100 years in the valley. She wants to reclaim her hometown, and to find a way to make her story part of Jackson’s larger story. Her family, her life with another woman, her love of wildlife are all aspects of Jackson she doesn’t want to be occluded by Brand Jackson Hole and the outdoor recreation industry.

“When I left Jackson, I felt like my story didn’t matter as much as news about a skier doing a 360 off of Corbet’s,” she said of the infamous couloir at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. The newness, the flashiness bothered her. She feared people were losing touch with what makes Jackson special in the first place.

Popping the Bubble

Perhaps there is something about being marginalized that makes LGBTQ people more attuned to creating a healthy community. Diversity is key to a healthy ecosystem—as it is to human communities. The younger generation of LGBTQ people Planet Jackson Hole spoke with show a commitment to Jackson through their work, their involvement in the arts, and their respect for nature. Munz expressed concern about the direction the town has taken in the past 10 to 20 years.

“I’m sick of conforming to an idea of what people think Jackson should be,” he said. “I don’t think we need to be this fake Western tourist haven.”

Taken together, the voices of Munz, Tallmadge, and Zender sound like a rising chorus of LGBTQ people who grew up in Jackson and want to ensure the community expands its heart.

“When did Jackson go from being a community that is taking care of itself to becoming a community focused on taking care of people who don’t live here?” Munz asked.

The community’s character was built by locals, Munz said, not by snazzy ad campaigns and marketing committees. Over time he has watched locals have to “fight for visibility” in their own community. He cited the recent dissolution of the Cultural Council of Jackson Hole, which held the annual Award for Creativity, as an example of a shift away from celebrating local innovators.
“The label of ‘local’ has been so muddled and cheapened because of our ebbing and flowing population, so I want to see our community start rallying for those who deserve recognition.”

In addition to spearheading the Pride Dance Party, Munz is the mastermind behind the satirical theatrical series  I Can Ski Forever.. He has also been an active member of Jackson’s theatrical scene, performing in plays and with the improv troupe, The Laff Staff. A columnist for this newspaper, Munz also writes plays and novels. Two summers ago he organized a vigil in the wake of the 2016 massacre of 49 people at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

“The work that I do has less to do with me getting my name out there, and more to do with finding a place for myself here,” he said. “The Pride Dance Party was one aspect of myself where I said, ‘I have to do something for this community. It was not meant to be a tourist attraction. It was for the local community.”

The enthusiastic reception to the Pride Dance Party reflects shifting demographics in Jackson. Architect John Stennis says he has seen more LGBTQ people moving to the valley, sometimes with kids.

“That’s exciting to see happen,” Stennis said. “They are wanting to raise their families in Jackson.”

Stennis, a 36-year-old gay man, has served on the Town Planning Commission. He ran for Jackson Town Council in 2014. He was unsure at the time if he would face backlash regarding his sexual orientation, but none came his way. He is happy to see the Town Council moving ahead with a nondiscrimination ordinance.

“It’s a nice gesture to the community that we take being inclusive seriously,” he said.

Jackson must increase its diversity and inclusiveness “because we see so many people here, people from all over the world, different nationalities and religions,” Stennis said. Being exposed to difference “breaks us out of our bubble.”

The movement toward inclusivity and against discrimination in the Jackson bubble did not emerge overnight. The inaugural Pride Dance Party stands on the shoulders of LGBTQ visibility work that spans decades. As early as 1994, Jackson activists were lobbying for passage of bias crimes legislation by the Wyoming Legislature. The de facto gay rights group Jackson PFLAG has been around in some form since the 1980s.

Jackson PFLAG coordinator and LGBTQ advocate Mark Houser hopes the tremendous attendance at the Pride Dance Party represents a shift in attitude towards the LGBTQ communities in Jackson.

“A new generation of LGBTQ people are making their home in Jackson,” he said. “They are willing to be out about their sexual orientation and gender identity.”

The generational push toward justice and equality in Jackson will continue if allies of LGBTQ people remember events like the Pride Dance Party as part of a bigger picture. Encouraged by the enthusiasm for the party, Munz wants LGBTQ allies to continue to advocate for safety and justice for queers.

“All of the people who were at the Pride Dance as allies need to make sure the message does not get lost,” he said. “If people stop talking about it, it won’t have legs. It’ll fade into selective memory as ‘the party’ and we’ll forget about how we finally created an inclusive, safe place for expression, dancing, and love in our town.”

In the week after the party, as Zender was preparing for a Contemporary Dance Wyoming performance and then a visit to see his boyfriend in L.A., he reflected on the main message of the dance party. What he’d like people in Jackson to know about queer people is simple: “That we are human beings.”

“We might have a different set of vocabulary and a different aesthetic in life,” he said. “But those differences are what unify us as a world.”


About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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