The fight for equal rights in Wyoming isn’t over

By Kerry Drake
— October 21, 2014

I’m happy today, for a very good reason: something has happened in our state that I didn’t think I might see in my lifetime. The biggest civil rights fight of my era is coming to a rapid end, after many years of ignorance, hatred and violence. In our laws, gay men and women are finally being treated as equals.

Kerry Drake

I know the fight isn’t over simply because gays and lesbians in Wyoming and many other states now have the freedom to marry the person they love. But marriage equality represents an acceptance of gays in our society that seemed impossible to achieve only a few years ago, when far-right politicians routinely used the issue to drive a wedge between voters.

In many places, including Wyoming, their tactics often worked. I remember the day in the State House in 1999 when a hate-crimes bill that included sexual orientation was about to be introduced, but when it came time to be read, the majority floor leader in charge abruptly halted the proceedings, killing it and every other bill left on the docket.

I went up to the legislator afterward and asked him why he wouldn’t let this proposal that so many people supported even be debated. He told me as long as he was in charge, no one was ever going to openly talk about homosexuality on the floor of the House. Homophobia prevailed in the halls of our Legislature for far too long.

Fast-forward to the present, when same-sex couples now have the freedom to marry, and it’s easy to feel joy for all the people who will now have their unions legally recognized by the state, with all of the rights that go with it. They will now be able to make estate plans that include their spouse, or add their spouse to health care plans. If their spouse gets sick, they will no longer be kept from visiting them because they are not a family member. In other words, rights that heterosexual couples have long taken for granted.

Several years ago I attended the commitment ceremony of two gay friends in Casper, who longed to get married in their home state but couldn’t because of its ban on gay marriage, so they did the next best thing. I still remember it as the most loving, caring ceremony I’ve ever been part of, but it made me upset such love wasn’t recognized in Wyoming. It wasn’t right. Why should any state have the power to declare who can and cannot get married, based on their sexual orientation?

So I am happy for the gays and lesbians I know whose marriages will be legal. Realistically, though, that doesn’t mean their neighbors, fellow church members or complete strangers will suddenly openly accept them. There has been so much hate and fear directed at homosexuals in this country and this state for generations, no single law will wipe it all out and change everyone’s beliefs.

Think about it: Just 16 years ago, a gay young man in Laramie was brutally murdered, touching off a worldwide call for gay rights. Thousands of people from all walks of life marched and held candlelight vigils, and it seemed inconceivable that not everyone would mourn his death the same way they would if he were heterosexual. But they didn’t, and in fact people in the city were divided about what they thought of the crime. Instead of universal compassion for the victim and his family, some lashed out and irrationally blamed him for his own murder.

I once told an editor I felt it was part of our responsibility to educate people about tolerance for others who are different, including the LGBT community. We know the truth, I reasoned, and we were in a position to help our readers understand that gay men and women shouldn’t be treated any differently than anyone else. We should stop perpetuating lies.

He not only didn’t agree, he chastised me for being an elitist. Many people of religious faith, he said, would be understandably angry with the idea that we or anyone else has the audacity to “educate” them about something they believe so ardently. He was probably also thinking about the stack of cancellation notices that might appear on his desk.

But the media’s exposure of the injustices of racial segregation played a pivotal role in ending that abhorrent practice, and marked the beginning of the recognition by many that we are all created equal. If we weren’t part of the process to unite people for the common good, we might still live in a land where there are water fountains and restaurants for “whites only.”

Of course, it works the other way, too.

I know a woman who watches Fox News 24/7. In the past few years, she’s transformed from being a person of tolerance to one who is depressed and gripped by fear caused from constant exposure to so-called “news” people who bombard her with thoughts about how much life is changing in America, all of it for the worse. They manage to twist every story to convey how much their viewers should be afraid of what’s going on around them.

Indeed, there is much she is worried about — unsavory people not like us who are crossing our borders, infiltrating our communities, bringing diseases, committing crimes or, maybe even worse, getting things for free that she and the rest of us had to struggle to obtain. Free food, free health care, free shelter, free educations, all at the expense of those who worked hard to make their lives and the lives of their children better.

She is constantly reminded that white Americans have a president who doesn’t look like the rest of us, so he must not share any of our traditional values, hopes and dreams. Taken to extremes, it’s led to some actually believing he represents what they’re most afraid of: people from other countries and other faiths intent on trying to destroy life as we know it.

This precious woman now worries all the time about Barack Obama, to the point she says if he’s going to continue being the president she doesn’t want to live in this world much longer. She wonders why someone so evil isn’t impeached, and why he’s allowed to plot taking our guns, denigrate our religious heritage, and embarrass America in the eyes of the world.

I’m not saying Fox News is solely responsible for this craziness, because other political groups and news organizations have portrayed presidents and their supporters as traitors, depending on who is in power. But I do think Fox has taken this trend to a whole new extreme.

The odd thing is this woman long ago accepted homosexuality, and learned the friends and relatives she knows who are gay are not people to scorn or ridicule. They’re not trying to get what some politicians call “special rights,” they just want to have the freedom to marry the person they love, like heterosexuals do. It was difficult for her to accept at first, because she was raised to view them as unrepentant, shameful sinners, but she came to understand they’re just like the rest of us, and part of the families we love. She came to realize the God she worships, a merciful God, wouldn’t doom them all to hell.

It’s my hope that after some time has passed, people who have been taught to hate or make fun of gays all their lives — who even blame them for “choosing” a lifestyle that could end with straight people killing them — will realize it’s a worldview that has absolutely nothing in common with reality. They have been taken advantage of, and goaded into believing the worst about everything that seems different, including same-sex couples marrying. Nothing their gay friends, neighbors and co-workers did was ever a threat to how they lived their own lives.

Because maybe if they finally know they wasted all that time being scared or angry, it will break down some of the other barriers used to keep us from accepting each other as we are. Maybe they’ll realize if it wasn’t true that gays and lesbians were subhuman or threatened them, they’ll be less likely to believe the next lie they are told.

Just a thought.

— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog.

— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

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Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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2 Comments

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  1. If you thought that the equality debate in this country revolved around the issue of same sex unions, just wait for the day when a hallowed institution like the Selective Service takes a spin in the genderblender. The odyssey has only just begun………..

  2. I enjoyed this article for its celebration of a good, long overdue decision. I’m a proud and hopeful Wyomingite these days. The Equality State is that much closer to owning its name now.

    But, I don’t know that the column gained anything by lumping all of those who have felt uncertainty or doubt in Laramie with those that lack an ability for universal compassion (which would include compassion for the perpetrators and their families as well, I think).

    Just a thought.