Taking Steps Towards Equality

By on July 18, 2018

LGBTQ non-discrimination ordinance has become law

(Robyn Vincent) Angel Dillon and Anne Marie Wells celebrate Jackson Town Council’s vote with a display of pride outside Town Hall.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Cheers and applause filled a crowded Town Hall and rainbow flags emerged from backpacks and purses on Monday evening when Jackson Town Council unanimously approved an LGBTQ non-discrimination ordinance.

The law makes it illegal for people to discriminate against someone based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodation. Offenders could be fined up to $750 per day.

Nearly 80 people crammed into town chambers and stretched into the lobby in anticipation of the council’s vote during the ordinance’s third reading. Weeks before, councilors showed no sign of resistance during the first and second readings, voting unanimously to move the ordinance forward even amid increased opposition at the second reading. 

The three readings drew a mix of locals and people from across the state—civil rights advocates from Laramie and Cheyenne, religious and Republican opponents from Thayne, Cody and Evanston.

On Monday, 25 citizens delivered 70 minutes of public comments that were largely in support—18 spoke in favor and seven were against, often citing religious freedom and the fear that the ordinance would create a “special class” of people.

Supporters who packed town chambers that evening signaled both Jackson’s increasing faction of civically engaged young people and the community’s appetite to see the ordinance’s passage. When the discussion moved from zoning items to the non-discrimination ordinance, the audience makeup shifted from predominantly older people to a diverse mix of 20- to 50-somethings.

Councilor Don Frank described those attendees, some who discussed enduring violence and harassment for being queer in Wyoming, as “loving, beautiful, shining hearts.” They have respect and understanding for the people in their community, he said.

He also addressed opponents, saying he respects and understands that not everyone can embrace the ordinance. But Town Council is “doing what we are charged to do and that is to come together and sincerely express our hopes and dreams.”

Frank added: “I will protect the rights of all people, of all dispositions, and I do not feel that I am creating a special class.”

Special rights, civil rights and Wyoming

That the ordinance would create “a special class” of people was a key concern raised by critics at all three readings. “I’m worried about discriminating against others,” Dan Brophy told the council on Monday. “Special rights of any group diminish the rights of someone else.”

Advocates answered such critiques by explaining what laws are on the books in Wyoming and what local and state statutes lack.

It is already illegal to discriminate against someone for race, religion, sex, disability, age or veteran status, advocate Matt Stech said. This ordinance would simply add sexual orientation and gender identity to that list.

In Wyoming, advocates say local NDO ordinances hold additional weight. There are no federal anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people, so the onus falls on municipalities and states to enact laws, Sabrina King, of Wyoming’s American Civil Liberties Union, told Planet Jackson Hole.

In the “Equality State,” the Wyoming Legislature has repeatedly struck down statewide legislation to protect LGBTQ people. Wyoming is one of five states, meanwhile, that also lacks a hate crime law. Yet the 1998 homophobic murder of Wyomingite Matthew Shepard is what spurred landmark federal hate crime legislation.

President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2016, 18 years after the University of Wyoming student was beaten, tortured and killed in Laramie, the only other Wyoming municipality with a non-discrimination ordinance on the books. That legislation largely passed without Republican support, including from Wyoming’s congressional delegation: Sens. Barrasso and Enzi and former Rep. Cynthia Lummis.

During a recent gubernatorial debate, all Wyoming candidates aside from Democrat Mary Throne rejected the need for LGBTQ state protections. Jackson’s own Foster Friess described Shepard’s murder as just “one incident” and compared it to the episode at the Red Hen restaurant in Virginia where the owner asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave. Both incidents, he said, damaged the credibility of the towns in which they occurred.

Indeed, many state lawmakers and those vying to rest their head in the governor’s mansion are diametrically opposed to non-discrimination legislation. But LGBTQ people in Wyoming are insistent about its necessity.

During the third reading of the non-discrimination ordinance, Claudia Mauro spoke about being attacked “nearly to death” at the age of 17 because her attackers perceived her to be a lesbian. To say “‘I am a lesbian’ is a not a safe thing to do anywhere in Wyoming,” she said.

She was responding to Jim Genzer, a longtime valley resident who opposed language in the ordinance about a person’s “perceived” sexual identity or orientation.

He worried that such language would encourage someone to take action against an employer or landlord who simply did not like them.

Mauro also addressed the notion that the ordinance would afford LGBTQ people special rights. “In some ways I believe that that is in fact true,” she said. “Right now there is a special right to exempt me and any other LGBTQ people from any non-discrimination clause. That’s not true of race, religion or any other thing like that. Right now you can exempt me.”

Kenzie Reed, an LGBTQ person who graduated from Journeys School in 2016, said that as a nation “we are doing embarrassingly little” to protect LGBTQ people. Transgender teens are 15 times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers, she said, and one-third of homeless youth are LGBTQ.

She said she has friends whose families have “thrown them out” for being gay, and knows lesbian coworkers who were evicted “on an innocuous noise complaint one week after they told their landlord they were not just gal pals sharing an East Jackson apartment.”

Kenzie Reed and Mark Houser of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays embrace outside Town Hall. Houser was instrumental in placing a proposed ordinance in front of Town Council. He researched ordinances in other towns and mobilized residents and businesses to support it.

Members of the LGBTQ community like Jody Donovan, vice president of operations at Teton Science Schools, said she and her wife are “vibrant” members of the community, but living in Jackson as an LGBTQ person is “tenuous.”

Passing the ordinance is just a step, she said. “It’s not a destination but your support makes us more likely to stay.”

Healthcare and social service professionals weighed in on the deleterious effects LGBTQ people endure when it comes to harassment and safety. Elisa Stephens, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, spoke about arguments made by opponents during the first and second readings—that the ordinance would embolden sexual predators to enter bathrooms of the opposite sex.

“There is no data suggesting that LGBTQ individuals are more likely to commit sexual crimes; research suggests that heterosexual males are” more likely, she said. Instead, it is LGBTQ individuals who are the most likely minority group to be victims of violent hate crimes, she said.

Stephens said the people making “incorrect and discriminatory ‘safety’ arguments” about the ordinance demonstrate the need for it.

Longtime valley pediatrician Dr. Lisa Ridgeway discussed the uncertainty young people face when considering how and when to come out to their families, how it is as much a choice to be gay as it is to be straight (in other words, it is not a choice at all).

Stech, who delivered to the council a Change.org petition that garnered 1,799 signatures in support of the ordinance, spoke of working in human services for 20 years. As a counselor serving young people, “some of the topics that came up were coming out to parents, verbal harassment for not conforming to gender norms, suicidal thoughts and behaviors, being sexually assaulted by a group of peers.”

These conversations speak to the damage and discrimination that LGBTQ people face, he said.

Still, opponents worried that the ordinance would infringe on their religious freedom. Reverend David Bott of Jackson’s Redeemer Lutheran Church said the council’s moral code was taking priority over some citizens. “You’re voting in moralities—your moralities over mine, your worldview over mine, your religion over mine.”

Anne Marie Wells, an LGBTQ person, said morality should be common ground, but history shows how long it takes for everyone to stand on the same soil. She quoted Evangelist preacher Bob Jones Sr., who said in 1960 of racial segregation: “If you are against segregation, then you are against God almighty because he made racial separation in order to preserve the race. God is the author of segregation, he drew the boundary lines between races. Why can’t good, solid, substantial people see this?”

At the time, Jones’s words represented Christian beliefs for a lot of people, just as some today “are calling upon their Christian beliefs” to discriminate against “LGBTQ individuals, like myself,” she said. Wells called the ordinance a bare minimum in the realm of human decency.

Mayor Pete Muldoon agreed.

“I am impressed by and proud of our community for coming together and showing empathy and love and compassion for everybody. The support you are all giving to each other … makes me really happy to live in Jackson,” he said. “This ordinance, as Anne Marie said, does only protect our most basic rights, so I am looking forward to the day when [it] is completely useless. Until then, we need it today.”


About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Planet Jackson Hole and Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

You must be logged in to post a comment Login