I’ve motored my way into eastern Wyoming, the state of rocky mountains, wide open spaces, and if the state’s motto is to be believed, equality! That’s because this was the first state in the Union to give women the vote in 1869! But today I planned to meet some folks who have been working hard to make the Equality State even more equal!
At Lions Park in the capital city of Cheyenne, I found a rainbow-decked pavilion radiating the smells of barbecue. There, I met and interviewed the Helpers of Wyoming Equality, Shayna Alexander and Robert West, about their historic first Pride event in downtown Cheyenne. They told me it’s still legal in Wyoming for someone to be fired or denied housing because they’re L, G, B, T, or otherwise Q, and for that reason Pride events have been limited to private picnics and potlucks. Well, not anymore! They’re calling for the Equality State to live up to its name and make non-discrimination a part of state law! You can read more from their interview here!
They introduced me to a tutu-wearing bison named WEB, short for Wyoming Equality Bison. I had to ask, why the tutu, and WEB told me it was in response to some comments that state senator, Mike Enzi, made to an assembly of students at Greybull High School back in April. When asked what he and his fellow senators were doing to improve conditions for the LGBT community, he said it was complicated and that folks shouldn’t wear tutus into bars if they don’t want to get beaten up.
That sure riled a lot of folks, and rightfully so. More than just an opportunity for a catchy hashtag campaign, #LiveAndLetTutu, the “he was asking for it” argument has deep and painful roots here in Wyoming. It was on a fence line just west of here in Laramie that Matthew Shepard was beaten and left to die on the night of October 12, 1998. The defense lawyers tried to use what’s called a “gay panic” defense, saying Matthew had flirted with them and caused them to panic to the point of kidnapping and beating him to death. Luckily, the judge saw such a defense as misleading and struck it down!
Though Matthew’s murderers were sentenced to life in prison, the murder itself was not treated as a hate crime, because federal protections for LGBT folks didn’t exist until eleven years later. What makes that hate crime distinction so important is that the FBI prioritizes hate crime investigations as a way to stop widespread damage to communities and nip domestic terrorism in the bud. Those protections didn’t come until 2009 when President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law!
I thought it would be appropriate to pay my respects at Matthew’s memorial on the eve before Wyoming’s first capital Pride, so after receiving some stickers and directions from WEB, I hit the road. Forty-five minutes later, I arrived in Laramie, a quiet railroad town named after French-Canadian trapper, Jacque LaRamie. It was here that the first female jurors served in 1870, where the Territorial Prison was built in 1872, and where the University of Wyoming opened its doors in 1887!
Matthew Shepard came to the University of Wyoming in 1998 after studying abroad in Saudi Arabia and Switzerland, hoping that being in a small town would help ease the depression and nightmares from another violent encounter he had in Morocco. With the decline of the ranching industry, the University of Wyoming was quickly becoming Laramie’s economic and cultural core, and for all intents and purposes, the academic atmosphere did seem pretty safe and accommodating.
Matthew studied political science and international relations at the Arts and Sciences building on the west side of campus, and was active with the university’s LGBT student alliance. Today, the university hosts an annual social justice conference called the Shepard Symposium, which brings in speakers from around the country to present on social issues that have yet to be resolved!
Today, the only memorial to Matthew Shepard is a small plaque on a bench in the forecourt of the Arts and Sciences building. Being there in the summertime, the campus was quiet, peaceful, and still, save for the occasional bunny rabbit hopping about. The plaque wished peace upon all who sat there. I liked those sentiments, and I hoped that peace would arrive in the arms of equality!
So the following day, I returned to Cheyenne and heard the good news: Cheyenne Pride had been a success! Though much smaller than the West Hollywood Pride festivities near my home, this inaugural event still brought 120 people out to the historic Cheyenne Depot Plaza for a parade, music, and fun activities like a dance! Also unlike WeHo Pride, there were no protestors, which was so nice!
I arrived too late for the main festivities, but just in time for a vigil to commemorate the massacre at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, which happened one year ago from tomorrow. Everyone lit candles, laid carnations, and sang a song together in memory of those lives lost.
As this budding event began to wrap up, I was so pleased to see that the long-dormant LGBT community of Wyoming was beginning to blossom. Though small, this was a successful event and a meaningful one. Events like this bring public faces to a community that often gets addressed in hypothetical ways, and I hope that the more real faces show up, the more real policies to protect them will follow!
So now I’m off to tell my friends at home about the neat folks I met at Cheyenne’s budding Pride festivities and to encourage everyone to support the movement, at home and elsewhere. I also encourage all policymakers in the Equality State to take pride in their name and to bust their butts to live up to every aspect of it!