The Intolerance State

By Jim Stanford on February 10, 2011

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Republican lawmakers may drag the state's dubious civil rights record to a new low. They have spent inordinate time trying to restrict the rights of gay citizens, even though some of their colleagues are gay or have gay children.

On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill that seeks to enshrine in the Wyoming Constitution discrimination against gays.

The so-called “Defense of Marriage” bill would let voters decide whether to amend the Constitution to define marriage as only between a man and woman.

The bill, which already has passed the Senate, is one of two lawmakers have been working on that would restrict the rights of gay citizens. The second, which passed the House, would prohibit Wyoming from recognizing gay marriages and civil unions performed in other states.

At the same time they are trying to prevent gay people who love each other from getting married, Republican legislators pushed another bill, since failed, to force straight people who don’t love each other to stay married.

What are these lawmakers afraid of? That our state will be infected by some sort of “pestiferous freelove doctrine?”

That’s precisely what critics said in the late 19th century when Wyoming first granted women the right to vote, earning itself the nickname “Equality State.” Perhaps it’s time to do away with that phony moniker.

Consider this timeline of dubious state history:

  • 1869 — Wyoming Territorial Legislature grants women the right to vote. The move was at least partly a publicity stunt, designed to draw more settlers, especially women, who were outnumbered by men roughly 6,000 to 1,000.
  • 1885 — Rock Springs Massacre: 28 Chinese miners killed, 75 homes burned after white miners riot over hiring of Chinese for lower wages.
  • 1890 — Wyoming becomes a state, first in union where women can vote. For this, it will be known as the “Equality State.”
  • 1904 — Last in a series of treaty renegotiations by which Shoshone Indians cede more than a million acres of the Wind River Reservation to white settlement. U.S. government essentially reneges on 1863 treaty.
  • 1942 — More than 10,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry forced to relocate to Heart Mountain internment camp, near Cody, during World War II.
  • 1990 — Wyoming lawmakers, reluctant to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, tack “Wyoming Equality Day” onto the name of official holiday.
  • 1998 — Matthew Shepard, gay student at University of Wyoming, robbed, beaten and tied to fence outside Laramie, and later died.
  • 2009 — President Obama signs hate crimes legislation named for Shepard into law; Wyoming Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso vote against it.

And now, in 2011, amidst all the concern about job losses and municipal budget shortfalls, Republican lawmakers have made outlawing gay marriage one of their top priorities. Emboldened by an infusion of Bible-thumping right wingers, they are stuck in 2004.

Wyoming has had a hard time with the image of a gay cowboy.

Particularly cowardly about this attempt to codify discrimination is the use of a constitutional amendment, which, barring a statewide campaign by the likes of Gerry Spence, is almost certain to pass.

Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, who ran against Enzi in 2008 and has emerged as a Democratic rock star in his first term in the Legislature, rightfully called the tactic an “easy out,” giving the majority a chance to take away minority rights. He challenged lawmakers to show leadership: “Vote yes or no because you support or oppose the right of equality for the gay community.”

During floor debate, Rep. Stan Blake, D-Green River, pointed to the stained-glass skylight in the Capitol and the two words prominently visible in the state seal: “Equal Rights.”

Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, is the Legislature’s only openly gay representative. She not only has fought against these bills but has authored other legislation to protect rights, unsuccessfully. Rep. Pat Childers, R-Cody, has spoken passionately in past sessions about his daughter, who is lesbian.

Connolly, who has a son, had to listen while sponsors such as Rev. Rep. Bob Brechtel, R-Casper, pontificated: “The state has a vested interest in the rearing of children. Studies tend to show that children do develop best in the setting of a mom and a dad.”

Fence outside Laramie where Matthew Shepard was found tied and beaten. Shepard's death was a flashpoint for the gay civil rights movement.

All but one of Teton County’s legislators have voted against the measures. Sen. Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, who represents parts of Wilson and Hoback Junction, voted in favor of the Senate bill.

A source in the Capitol says Gov. Matt Mead privately is fretting about the legislation, which comes as the state is trying to woo technology firms with tax breaks and other incentives to move to Wyoming and build supercomputers and data centers. Mead worries that Wyoming could get a black eye, hampering efforts to stimulate economic development and create jobs.

It’s also a curious move in a state that depends so heavily on tourism to tell a significant percentage of the population they aren’t as welcome here.

Rothfuss and Connolly concede that both measures are likely to pass. If so, it will be up to the citizens of Wyoming to show the courage their leaders would not, and defend the words of the great seal and state motto, if they are to have any meaning at all.


Posted under Economy, Politics, Religion, Republican Party, Wyoming, Wyoming Legislature

20 Comments so far

  1. April February 10, 2011 3:30 pm

    I’m glad to see our representatives did not vote for this crap. As a Republican, I am absolutely appalled by this and embarrassed for both my party and my state. This should not be a partisan issue.

  2. Mark February 10, 2011 5:05 pm

    This article is just as far left of center as the proposed legislation is to the right. Both sides need to recognize the interests and concerns of those affected and work to find a middle ground. The heavily religious right leaning Utah is doing this; while maintaining marriage between a man and a woman, they are extending all the rights and privileges that marriage provides to domestic partners, and making discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation illegal.

    It’s when the deeper agenda of gay activists to get their lifestyle recognized as socially and morally accepted that the conservative right pushes back with unreasonable restrictions and defenses. Toleration is the key; neither side need accept the viewpoints of the other, but both need to start becoming tolerant of these philosophical differences.

  3. D February 10, 2011 6:12 pm

    While I agree with a lot of what Mark just said, if you watch what’s been going on in the state congress it makes Wyoming look horrible. As a life long resident of this great state it’s embarrassing.

  4. kevin February 11, 2011 12:01 am

    Same sex couples are asking for a basic civil right — to be treated as legally equal to other committed couples under the law. How that somehow negatively affects anyone else is beyond me.

    11 states have extended same sex couples legal recognition (marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships) and a few other states are on the cusp of doing so. These states make it clear that that they don’t simply tolerate same sex couples but they welcome them and their committed relationships as equals. Last I heard no heterosexual marriages in those states were in jeopardy because of allowing same sex couples legal rights and responsibilities.

    My partner and I have been in a committed same sex relationship for 15 years and are raising a 5 year old son. We live in Oregon. We visit the Jackson Hole area for a few weeks every year and have even considered moving there. The people we’ve met on our vacations there have been very accepting of our family. All good until what we are reading recently about the Wyoming legislature quickly moving towards putting out the “You’re not Welcome Here” mat to families like ours.

    Besides being unnecessary and rude and a civil rights issue, from a purely practical viewpoint, Wyoming is in danger of inadvertently offering on a silver platter a competitive edge to the more welcoming states to attract businesses. Companies are always in search for the best talent and want to be where the best pool of talent live — which in this day and age the talent pool almost always has some gay employees.

    I’ve noticed a few comments to this post that suggest that more tolerance on both sides is the way to go in the hopes of finding a middle ground. Yea, that’s how all civil rights gains are achieved. Please. If it were not for the “gay activists”, there would be no states as well as entire countries with legal equality for same sex couples. And as for that “deeper agenda” (that phrase always bothers me as if there is some alternative malicious conspiracy in all this), it is a straightforward ‘agenda’: to be treated as legally equal (not ‘separate but equal’ but truly equal). Nothing more. Nothing less. Not looking to have religions or anyone for that matter to morally accept our lifestyle — just want to be treated legally equal. Nothing more. Nothing less.

    Jim, thanks for your well-written and very informative post. I wholeheartedly agree with your outrage and your desire for Wyoming to live up it’s now rather ironic state’s motto:
    “equal rights”.

  5. Dan February 11, 2011 11:50 am

    My husband and I are loving our home state, the Great State of Massachusetts more with each passing day.

    Over the last four years, over 200 million dollars have flowed into our state because of marriage freedom.

  6. Rob W. February 11, 2011 9:04 pm

    ‘He challenged lawmakers to show leadership: “Vote yes or no because you support or oppose the right of equality for the gay community.”’

    It should be even simpler…vote yes because you support minding your own business?

  7. bronco billy February 12, 2011 10:06 am

    steer & queer tokenisms at their finest

  8. David Stubbs February 13, 2011 7:56 am

    Rob nailed it. Why is it that the Republican party that runs on the idea of less government insists on directing the most personal, intimate parts of people’s lives. The ignorant hypocricy in our state legislature is out of hand. Nothing more basic than equal rights in the equality state.

  9. js February 13, 2011 8:59 pm

    @Mark: Left of center? All of the lawmakers pushing these bills are, in fact, Republicans. Our state is being hijacked by a bunch of holier-than-thou crusaders intent on stuffing their religion and lifestyle down our throats. Let people be, and move on.

    And yes, whether it’s sex, the relationship between a woman and her doctor (abortion and ultrasound bill) or forcing drivers to take breath or blood tests (Keith Gingery’s bill), the so-called champions of “less government” are finding more and more ways to cram their version of government into our personal lives and liberties.

  10. Mark February 14, 2011 3:02 am

    @js: By left of center I was referring to your post…not the bills, which are obviously waaaay to the right. I think it’s safe to say that everyone wants this “equality” issue to be resolved; with enough communication and cooperation, I’m sure a bill could be crafted that would appease all those who care one way or the other.

    I’m bothered by both sides vilifying each other. Whether it be extreme actions like burning a church or someone getting beat up, or articles using terms like “bible thumping right wingers” or “queer loving _____”. I can’t stand conservatives saying God hates Gay’s etc., and I’m equally perturbed by liberals framing this issue with events like “white men kill 28 chinese immigrants over jobs”. Both sides extrapolate the facts so bad it fuels the fire.

    @kevin: “Legally equal, nothing more nothing less”. I agree, I just wish it was that simple. It’s not black and white, and it’s naive to think that other groups won’t be negatively affected. How long will it be until a gay couple sues a church for not marrying them when state law recognizes gay marriage? Will the church lose it’s ability to marry strait couples? Will it lose it’s tax-exempt status for not complying? How about the young man who gets placed in a gay foster home…maybe he’s uncomfortable with that but the state has to place children equally…. There’s a ton of scenarios to consider. I also recognize the inequities that exist the other way. I’m just saying that we need to be more constructive in our criticisms, realize that our entire society is involved, and not fuel the hate fire in either direction.

    I enjoy hearing opinion’s; I also appreciate those who watch our government closely to insure that our needs are taken care of. Thanks.

  11. D February 14, 2011 9:13 am

    This state is not being hijacked; it has always been run on the right side of line. Whether that’s good or bad is another story. You’re not in NY anymore, and Teton County is notihng like the rest of the state. I am all for equal rights for everyone, I don’t understand why gays are so scary to so many people. No matter what your opinion is the idea that these bills are a top priority at the current time is flat out crazy. The drunken driving bill, abortion bill, Anti gay bill, and Right to hunt bill are all a waste of time and money, there are real issues to deal with. The economy, illegal immigration, DEBT, and number one Jobs. The rest is BS and a waste of time.

    On a side note I read Joes post last night and it’s too bad you took it down because it does show how prevalent the problem is. It also shows that Wyoming is not the only state with problems like you might think from reading these posts. Everyone has a right to their opinion whether you agree with it or not, I just wish everyone would leave the bible at home right next to the inconvenient truth solve some real problems with some hard work and common sense.

    Final point anyone who believe more then 1o % of Republicans are for smaller government should really start paying attention. Actions speak louder then words and their actions speak for themselves.

  12. joe February 14, 2011 10:31 am

    historically, political equality has to be earned,which takes time. The ignorance or arrogance of media political extremism (pro or con) only lengthens the process. there have always been homosexuals and lesbians in wyoming who have contributed to their communities well being, and wyoming hasn,t produced serial killers gay or straight. your knowledge of wy. history at best is purely cavelier and somewhat embarrasing. but we will write it off because you learned your journalism at the N&G

  13. js February 14, 2011 10:56 am

    D, I made a change so that all comments are to be held in the queue for moderation, instead of being automatically approved. Will explain more on that later. If “joe” (aka bronco billy) wants to copy and paste an encyclopedic list of gay serial killers, he can do so on his own blog. A link would have sufficed.

    I’m willing to wager I’ve spent more time in the Wyoming Capitol observing the Legislature and studying state history than any of the naysayers here. I’m not in NY? No shit. I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else, and long enough to speak up when I feel it’s warranted.

    There used to be an old guard of Republicans in the Legislature who did espouse less government and knew how to effectively kill a lot of these types of bills.

    joe, I didn’t learn journalism at the NaG. I practiced it. Before you offer any more of your snide journalism critique, learn to spell.

  14. JG February 14, 2011 2:06 pm

    Not that this helps the debate but you remined me of an old Maine story:

    Reporter:How old are you?

    Burt: “97″

    Reporter: Were do you live?

    Burt: “East Vassalboro, Maine”

    Reporter: Lived there your whole life?

    Burt: “Well,….not yet”

  15. kevin February 14, 2011 4:46 pm

    @Mark: You seem to merely be paying lip service to the issue of equality and shuffling your feet in your argument. “Sure I want it but it may be a little messy so now is not a good time. And besides some people on both sides are being mean to each other!”

    Some of your hypotheticals of what may or may not happens are red herrings and seem to me as either ignorant or homophobic. I’ll take just one piece of red herring bait. A foster kid that feels uncomfortable placed in same sex couple household? Heaven forbid. Insert in your scenario a racially insulated white kid and then make the couple a racial minority. Is there really a difference in the 2 scenarios? Of course the kid may initially feel uncomfortable when exposed to something new in either scenario. But I bet if the kid gets love, support and good parenting, the fact that it is a same sex household will quickly no longer be of significance.

    If you want to allay your fears which lead you to hesitate for moving forward on this issue, check out the 11 states or any of the countries that have already implemented equal rights for same sex couples. They dared to be “naive” and provide equality (no more, no less). Ramifications? Nearly nada. Non-event. Except for that little accomplishment of making a class of marginalized people into equals in the eyes of the law. Land of the free, home of the brave and all that . . .

  16. Rachel Stevens February 15, 2011 11:52 am

    Kevin, that is exactly what I was thinking about the “How about the young man who gets placed in a gay foster home…maybe he’s uncomfortable with that but the state has to place children equally…” comment.

    What if it was a black couple fostering in the 1960s?

    What if someone was uncomfortable?

    I feel like in fifty years we’ll look back at this time [just as we look back to America before the Civil Rights Act] and wonder how unjust our country was. It will be a shameful time in our history… when we put bullshit “morals” before rights and equality.

  17. Chad February 15, 2011 2:24 pm

    @joe: Please explain how political equality “has to be earned” rather than being inherent.

    Also, I reject the notion that you have to be from location X to understand location X. Fearing/denying outside information and ideas is a pillar of control employed only in closed societies.

  18. dswift February 15, 2011 5:42 pm

    “Historically, political equality has to be earned” is a magnificent glimpse into the low-information, frightened mind.

    Let me translate. “I have no idea what ‘human rights’ actually means. I am oblivious to this revolutionary concept that lifted mankind out of the Dark Ages, profoundly mitigating the blackest human impulses and ultimately providing the most freedom for the most people. All I know about rights is what a lady with teabags dangling from her hat says. If other people were as good as me, they’d have the same rights as me already. But they aren’t so they don’t. Tough titty. Also, I blame newspapers.”

  19. joe February 15, 2011 6:08 pm

    the inherrent rights of women were earned. suffrage,et al
    everything that is now inherrant in life was earned
    “womens suffrage and history in wyoming was not a parlour trick, just ask women.
    the chinese were hated all over the west, for economic reasons.
    the japanese were sent to wy. by the fed. gov.,and guarded by the feds. while people in calf. oregon and wash. took their property
    junk information=junk ideas=junk politics=closed societies even in a two party system
    most people lose
    I hope you do reject your location x notion
    doesn’t make any sense to me either
    i,m not against civil rights for anyone

  20. js March 3, 2011 3:26 pm

    In a remarkable turnaround, the Wyoming Legislature defeated yesterday the last remaining gay marriage bill:

    Both bills that would have restricted the rights of gay citizens ultimately were defeated this session, along with an intrusive abortion bill. Wyoming lawmakers were shamed into coming to their senses. Nice work, everyone, who stuck up for The Equality State.

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