By Jim Stanford on February 10, 2011
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.
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.”
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.”
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.