As you can imagine, it’s been tough way out west in Wyoming since the election. Especially for minorities. Especially for LGBT minorities. Hell, it’s been tough in Wyoming since 1998 when Matthew Shepard was murdered outside of Laramie. It’s been tough since even before that.
Right now, the future seems bleak and it’s difficult to not give up. We are living a Sisyphean life, rolling that giant boulder up the hill until a political force kicks our feet out from beneath us. Then the boulder rolls down the hill and we must start over.
But what happens when a glimmer of light does shine through the darkness? We need to tend to it.
On a particularly gray day at Wyoming Equality headquarters, Sara Burlingame, the Education and Outreach Coordinator for Wyoming Equality, opened the mail to find a surprising note and a check. The note, written by the students of the Little Red Schoolhouse, a progressive K-12 school in Manhattan, described a talk Jason Marsden, the Executive Director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, gave them after they put on a production of The Laramie Project, the award-winning play about the murder of Matthew Shepard. Marsden had chatted with the students over Skype, showing them photographs of the Shepard family and talking about his personal friendship with Matthew. The note explained how the students had connected to Matthew’s story so intensely that they had sent around a collection jar at their play’s intermission. They collected a staggering and totally unexpected sum of $500.
The school sent half of the donations to Wyoming Equality and the other half to the Matthew Shepard Foundation in Denver. The students let us know that we have friends in New York City who are thinking of these organizations. Sarah Burlingame and Jason Marsden were so touched that they knew they had to give the money raised by teens back to teens.
Heartened by the generosity of the young people all the way across the country, Wyoming Equality put the call out to the statewide GSA Network, inviting students in school gay-straight alliances, and their sponsors, to come to the state capital, Cheyenne, for a GSA Civics Day.
We expected 15 to 20 students at the most. We were amazed when nearly 70 students showed up. We stretched that $233 all the way across the state to help bring students to the Capitol. The money paid for their transportation and our time to help educate them on how to properly lobby.
The outpouring of support from the local community was also remarkable. A church donated space for us to gather to learn about the Dos and Don’ts of lobbying their legislators. Grandparents from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Cheyenne who lived near the capitol brought lunch. Full of food and support from local residents, we geared up to speak to state representatives, judges, and senators.
Amid the motivating environment, however, there was a sobering moment: We had to tell the LGBT teens that legislature in Wyoming is not necessarily a safe space; if lobbying state politicians, the teens might be ridiculed, talked down to, or flat-out ignored. Our state has a very consistent conservative majority—80% of voters chose Donald Trump.
We then headed to the Wyoming Supreme Court where Justice Kate Fox addressed some students while others explored the new Judicial Learning Center. She spoke about GSAs and their importance in schools, and asked students what they did in their GSAs and why they thought they were necessary. One student answered: “We’re not always safe in our homes, so we need GSAs at school for support.” Fox nodded and said she understood. She continued to chat with different students and was engaging and encouraging. The students left with a new understanding of the judiciary and a commitment to pay attention to what was happening in our nation’s courts.
At the Capitol, students met with legislators. Some were friendly. Some were engaging. Some didn’t want to hear about the pain trans students face every day–not just from their family and friends–but their government, as well. Students had the opportunity to thank legislators including Rep. Tyler Lindholm (R) for his support of a 2015 ENDA bill (it was not passed into law). And they also had the opportunity to ask Sen. Cale Case (R), why he hadn’t voted for a bill that would have ensured their right to stay in Wyoming, work, and pay taxes here without the threat of being fired for their sexual orientation.
Governor Matt Mead was the last person we met with. He had promised 10 minutes to our group, but ended up staying for over an hour. He spent time with each student, took selfies, telling the students, “Legislators need to stop encouraging bullying through their bad laws.”
“Wyoming always wants to be recognized as a state that respects the rights of all people, gay and transgender, and respects the religious liberties and rights of people,” Mead said earlier this year after signing a proclamation in support of the Wyoming Rescue Mission’s work with the homeless in Casper.
House Bill 244 would have made it a crime for anyone to use a public restroom or changing room that is not designated for that person’s sex assigned at birth. But the effect of that bill would run counter to the efforts of school officials who work with transgender students and their families to thwart bullying. (The bill is dead, having never gotten out of committee.)
Mead told the students, “We don’t want our kids bullied if they are gay or transgender or for any other reasons.” This statement was completely unexpected coming from a Republican governor of a very red state.
Finally, a transgender girl in our group walked up to Mead and thanked him for standing up for her. Perhaps the most touching and affirming moment of our day was when he took her hands in his and said, “Thank you, young lady,” using the proper gender pronoun.
The phrase “We aren’t what you think we are in Wyoming” could not have been more true that day. It’s a hard rap to beat when we are the home to the murder of Matthew Shepard, decades of anti-LGBT bills, remarks from legislators like Senator Enzi who several weeks ago said men in tutus were “asking for it.”
But we aren’t what you think we are in Wyoming. We’re changing. As they say, the pendulum always swings. Perhaps it’s finally our time. The kids in New York City seem to think so.