The scent of afternoon barbecue drifted through the air as I met the Helpers of Wyoming Equality outside a rainbow-decked pavilion in Cheyenne’s Lions Park. Treasurer, Shayna Alexander, and volunteer, Robert West, were preparing to launch the capital’s first ever LGBT Pride Festival. Since Los Angeles Pride has been going strong since 1970, I was surprised that it’s taken so long for the Equality State to get a Pride Festival!
Robert explained that “Wyoming has this history of having [Pride] potlucks, but they’ve always been in private, intimate spaces in somebody’s houses or in the basement of a community house. It’s always been very private and very quiet.”
One reason is that, in Wyoming, there is no statewide Non-Discrimination Ordinance (NDO) to protect LGBT people from discrimination in housing and employment!
“You can get married on Sunday and show up to work and get fired on Monday. That’s perfectly legal in our state,” said Shayna. “That’s really frustrating in the Equality State, because we were the first state to enfranchise women with the right to vote, but what have we done for women lately? What have we done for the LGBT community lately? It was a hundred years ago that women got the right to vote.”
The only city in Wyoming where any NDO exists is Laramie, where Matthew Shepard was murdered in 1998. Despite that small progress, Matthew’s murder left many LGBT folks in Wyoming less than eager to come out, rainbow flags waving. That was something that struck a chord with both Shayna and Robert.
Shayna moved here in 2015 from Hawaii, where she was heavily involved in the local chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and Hawaii Equality. When she settled in Cheyenne, she wanted to know where the LGBT community was hiding.
“We need to be able to connect with each other to know that there is support out there for whatever is happening. If your kid came out, who do you talk to? If you’re trans, who do you talk to?”
Robert, also from out of state, attended the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Matthew Shepard’s alma mater. After participating in the annual Shepard Symposium, which brings in speakers from across the country to promote dialogue on a variety of social justice topics, he knew he wanted to get more involved in building an LGBT community in Wyoming.
“Wyoming by nature and by design is very isolating,” said Robert, who is now spearheading Laramie’s first Pride in a few weeks. “That’s really what people like about Wyoming, but being a queer person and being isolated is not healthy and not effective, and not safe in a lot of ways…Pride is so important, because it creates that visibility.”
So both Robert and Shayna joined Wyoming Equality, which grew out of an LGBT-friendly camping, hiking, and fishing group called Rendezvous. Launched in 1992, Rendezvous has expanded into a five-day event in Medicine Bow National Forest with over 500 campers attending! Naturally, the more the campers shared their experiences and their struggles living in Wyoming, the more important it became to add advocacy to camping.
“Right now our state archives don’t have anything about LGBT people in the state,” said Shayna. “So we’re going through all of our records that go back 30 years…And we’re going to submit it all to the state archives to go on record that this is part of Wyoming history. We’re also going through a lot of photos and newspapers and putting the category that ‘That was really gay what they did.’ Or if someone was charged as part of an indecency law, [we’re] categorizing that, saying that this is Wyoming history, that queer people have always existed. Because there’s that notion that queer people don’t exist in rural America, and we know that’s just not true.”
But Wyoming Equality isn’t just focused on the past. They successfully lobbied to strike down House Bill 244, which would have made it so people could only use public bathrooms that matched their anatomy at birth, forcing trans men to use women’s bathrooms and trans women to use men’s bathrooms!
Now they’re facing an uphill battle to pass a statewide NDO and any policy supporting trans-inclusive bathrooms. Nonetheless, Wyoming Equality is having some success on the local level. This year, they sponsored a GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) lobby day at the capitol that invited LGBT youth from across Wyoming to come to Cheyenne and speak with their representatives. They expected ten and got seventy.
“We had seventy kids going to lawmakers and having those conversations with them, about the bathroom bills and what it means to be a gay kid in Wyoming,” recalled Shayna proudly. “These kids were saying ‘Wyoming is my home. I plan to go to college here. I want to start my family and have a career here, but I need to know that my state has my back.'”
Though they still face many obstacles to end LGBT discrimination in Wyoming statewide, these Helpers understand the historical and symbolic importance of having their first Pride parade down Lincoln Way in Cheyenne. It’s a reminder to communities across the state that they have a voice in the capital working tirelessly until the Equality State can truly live up to its name.
To help the helpers at Wyoming Equality: