As a wave of legislation restricting transgender rights swept through statehouses across the country this year, Wyoming broke with what some say is a decades-long tradition of blocking anti-LGBTQ bills. 

Activists deployed a strategy, they say, that worked for decades: aligning LGBTQ rights with the core Republican principle that government should sparingly intervene in citizens’ private decisions.   

In 1977 state lawmakers defined marriage as a civil contract between a male and a female, a blow to LGBTQ rights. But since then, “every single bill that would limit the civil rights of LGBTQ people in Wyoming has been defeated,” said Sara Burlingame, a former legislator and executive director of Wyoming Equality, an advocacy group. “This was the year that changed,” she said. 

Burlingame was referencing a new law that will prohibit transgender girls from competing in middle- and high-school girls sports events. Asserting it is about fairness and not restriction, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly for Senate File 133 – Student eligibility in interscholastic sports during the 2023 general session. And while Gov. Mark Gordon called it “overly draconian,” he let the bill become law without his signature. It is set to go into effect in July.

“It is difficult for me to sign legislation into law that knowingly will cost the state and taxpayers money to litigate and may be challenged under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause,” Gordon wrote in his letter to lawmakers. Wyoming Equality is in fact planning a legal challenge, and the U.S. Department of Education announced earlier this month a proposed change to Title IX that would make it illegal for schools to “categorically ban transgender students from participating on sports teams consistent with their gender identity just because of who they are.”

If a court challenge pauses Wyoming’s ban, the legislation would then require the governor to appoint a five-member commission to determine the eligibility of a student in interscholastic sports. 

There were also victories for LGBTQ advocates in the 2023 session, including the defeat of two bills to limit gender-affirming care for minors and one that closely mirrored Florida’s restrictions on what can be discussed in public schools. But advocates like Burlingame expect those bills to return to the statehouse, and there’s concern that the sports ban’s passage marks a turning point for LGBTQ rights in Wyoming and the strategy used to protect them. 


The same year the Legislature defined marriage between a male and a female, lawmakers also repealed Wyoming’s anti-sodomy law.

“All of that happens in 1977,” Burlingame said. “So it’s this really banner year where the Wyoming Legislature … looks at gay rights and opens the door in one direction and sets a boundary in another direction.” 

In 1982, Wyoming dropped common law crimes from its statutes, which legalized all sexual activity between consenting adults. But an impasse largely characterized the decades that followed, in which both protections for and restrictions of LGBTQ rights failed to get adequate support to become law. 

For same-sex marriage, it was the courts, not the Legislature, that ultimately budged the needle. A federal district court ruling in 2014 made same-sex marriage legal in Wyoming the year before the United States Supreme Court made it constitutionally guaranteed nationwide. 

After the high court settled the law, another stalemate came back into focus — a hate-crime law. Since the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1999, hate-crime legislation has failed repeatedly to get enough votes from lawmakers. Most recently, the Joint Judiciary Committee voted down legislation in 2021 that would have updated statutory language to create a de facto hate crime law. However, whether Wyoming already has bias-motivated statutes on the books depends on who you ask, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Wyoming and the U.S. Justice Department holding different views on a little-known state law, according to the Casper Star-Tribune

In 2017, lawmakers introduced legislation to criminalize people using public restrooms that do not correspond with the gender assigned to them at birth. The bill was dead on arrival, failing to meet an initial deadline, but was the first legislation of its kind in Wyoming. At the time, former Republican Gov. Matt Mead said bills dealing with public restrooms would undermine the state’s nickname of “the Equality State.” A task force convened by Mead to devise a plan to diversify the state’s economy identified a statewide non-discrimination law as a key recommendation in its 2018 report

“Recruiting, hiring, and retaining high-quality talent is essential to growing successful businesses in a global economy,” according the report. “It is important that Wyoming residents and visitors are treated with equality.”

While the state has yet to take such action, several local governments have addressed the issue, adopting non-discrimination ordinances. 

Sara Burlingame, director of LGBTQ advocacy organization Wyoming Equality, speaks to members of Gillette’s PFLAG chapter at a gathering at Pizza Carello on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. (Nick Reynolds/WyoFile)

Changing tides 

The Legislature has steadily moved farther to the right in recent years. In 2022, Republicans picked up four seats previously held by other parties. But that swelling conservative supermajority hasn’t necessarily brought a deeper commitment to a small-government mindset that has helped LGBTQ advocates in the past, Burlingame said. With the rise of the Wyoming Freedom Caucus, which has grown its membership and its position in the statehouse, Burlingame said the body’s adherence to core Republican principles like limited government, equality and liberty has waned, making way for bills that previously wouldn’t have passed. 

“We want people to truly recognize the full dignity and worth of LGBTQ Wyomingites,” Burlingame said. “But in the past, we’ve won not because people have strong feelings for the LGBTQ [community] but [because] they had strong feelings about the role of government.”

That’s become a less reliable strategy; Republican lawmakers butted heads over the proper scope of government during the 2023 session with several Freedom Caucus members arguing for a top-down approach in some cases. 

“Local government is merely political subdivisions of this state,” Freedom Caucus member Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams (R-Cody) said on the House floor in response to colleagues’ criticisms that one of her bills eroded local control in favor of state power.  

Several other factors facilitated the sports ban’s passage, Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) said. 

“I just think it was an emerging issue in the constituency and it dealt with kids,” he said, which differentiates it in his view from an adult issue. Zwonitzer is now the only openly gay member of the Wyoming Legislature, because Cathy Connolly — the first openly gay legislator in state history — did not seek re-election after 13 years in the House, and Burlingame and Chad Banks of Rock Springs lost their respective races in 2022.  

Connolly was candid during her keynote address at The Democracy Lab Symposium hosted at the Albany County Public Library on Saturday. She told attendees that when Rep. Wendy Schuler (R-Evanston) first brought legislation to limit trans girls’ participation in school sports, in 2022, the two had agreed the “bill was a sledgehammer that codified discrimination to appease an angry mob.”

“I have the greatest respect for [Connolly], but I don’t remember saying that at all,” Schuler told WyoFile. Schuler also rejected the idea put forth by Connolly that the bill was about scoring “Republican street cred” to counter some of her more moderate views. Schuler is not part of the Freedom Caucus, and was challenged by one of its former members, Bob Wharff, in the 2022 election. 

“I don’t go digging around to see what’s happening at the national level that might interest me,” Schuler said, adding that she relies on what she hears from constituents to draft legislation. 

As to whether the ban is at odds with Wyoming’s proclivity for small government, Schuler said “there’s some truth to that,” adding that government intervention should be decided on a case-by-case basis. 

“Sometimes, we as Republicans, we really don’t want the government in our business,” she said. “But then if we think we’ve got to right a wrong, then we do want them in our business.”

An analysis by The Washington Post found that more bills targeting LGBTQ rights — particularly transgender rights — have been introduced and become law in 2023 than at any other time in U.S. history. Disruptive opposition to that surge in other states has led to arrests and the barring of one transgender lawmaker from her own chamber.   

Zwonitzer said he believes Wyoming’s sports ban is a more “reasonable approach, especially compared to a lot of other states [that] have gone a bit overboard when it comes to these issues.” Zwonitzer, who was one of six Republicans to break with party lines and vote against the ban, pointed to an amendment to exclude training or practicing with a team from the ban as a reasonable piece of it. Zwonitzer also puts stock in the intentions of the bill’s main sponsor, Schuler. 

“I don’t think it was brought as a bill to attack the LGBT community, like a lot of the other bills in the past,” Zwonitzer said. “This is truly about fairness in women’s sports. So I think that’s why it passed.”

Sen. Wendy Schuler (R-Evanston) during the 2023 general session. (Megan Lee Johnson/WyoFile)


A longtime athlete and coach, Schuler got her start in sports in the early days of Title IX. Enacted in 1972, the federal civil rights law prohibits sex discrimination at education institutions that receive federal funding in primary, secondary and higher education — effectively ensuring that everyone would have the same opportunities in school sports, regardless of their sex. 

“I’ve been an advocate for girls and their sports opportunities ever since, because I was on the other end and saw how unfortunate it was that so many of us had to sit on the sidelines,” Schuler said. She first brought a bill to sideline transgender athletes in the 2022 budget session after she’d been approached by some constituents. 

“Their kids had gone over and competed in Utah, and they’d [encountered] a couple of transgender athletes over there who just overwhelmed these gals,” Schuler said. She went back to the drawing board after the 2022 version of the bill died. Those efforts included working with Burlingame, who Schuler said has been a friend since they both started in the Legislature in 2019. 

“I visited with her, talked with other people. Of course, she wanted me to just take away the ban completely, and I just said, ‘No, I can’t do that,’” Schuler said. 

Instead, Schuler removed collegiate athletics from the bill and added language to create the commission, which largely resembles the one in Utah. Utah’s commission was activated last year after a judge reversed the state’s ban on the basis that it violated equal rights and due process under the state’s constitution. And similar to Utah’s commission, Wyoming’s law prescribes that the committee consist of certain persons — including a mental health professional and a parent of a current student — and that the committee’s work not be subject to public records law. 

“She obviously thinks I’m very wrongheaded in my support for all transgender athletes, and I believe that her bill has potentially fatal consequences for children,” Burlingame said. One social worker told lawmakers during the 2023 session that Wyoming families with transgender children were in crisis on account of the bill, with most of those children being on suicide watch. 

With such high stakes, Burlingame said some of her organization’s national partners have at times encouraged her to take a less compromising approach and to break relationships with lawmakers who don’t fully support LGBTQ rights. 

“And we have to say, that doesn’t work and we don’t believe it,” Burlingame said. Still, Burlingame said she wants people to understand that the next chapter will require effort and it’s not just LGBTQ rights on the line.

“Government doesn’t exist to limit anyone’s civil rights and the Freedom Caucus is just destroying that concept,” Burlingame said. “Like they’re just taking an ax to it, and it will change the whole character of Wyoming.”

People, she continued, “will have to do something that costs them something, they’ll have to do something that puts them in a place of moral courage.”

Maggie Mullen reports on state government and politics. Before joining WyoFile in 2022, she spent five years at Wyoming Public Radio.

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  1. Boys play Boys’ sports and Girls play Girls’ sports. Period. The Equality State has never discriminated in favor of one group over another. If you want to be Trans, go for it, but that doesn’t mean you receive preferential treatment. Thanks to the Freedom Caucus for reminding Wyoming voters of this. Where can I get a “Wyoming Freedom Caucus” hat ? Thanks.

    1. Yes! Wyoming is EXACTLY still the Equality State. That’s exactly why they want equal playing fields in women’s sports. Don’t you believe in equal rights to play sports?
      What if I identified as an 8 year old kid… would you demand I should be qualified to play soccer in the local rec leagues for young children? Where do you believe the line should be drawn… or do you believe there are no lines?

  2. This is one of those issues that has truly befuddled me as I felt like society already had this discussion, but maybe it wasn’t widely held or new information has arisen?  Professional Tennis already had this discussion when Renee Richards transitioned later in her life, but she went on to compete in female events.  Chrissy Everett, Renee Richards and Martina Navratilova all conceded Renee had an advantage and would have been No 1. in the world had Richards transitioned in her 20s.  So to me this is the jumping off point in any discussion.  What has changed to allow transgender athletes to be considered a “fair” competition?  Will the transgender advocates argue for removing the testosterone limits for tennis and Olympic athletes?

    It appears to me the LGBT advocates do not want to discuss that history and resort to stopping the conversation through the use of labels.  Transphobe is the same as RINO in my book and using the cudgel of potential child self harm is not a good enough answer.  Kids are very self centered and lots of them have self harm thoughts even as many adults cannot fathom self harm over seemingly trivial issues.

    Now I have since learned that as science has progressed, children can be prevented from entering puberty enhancing/limiting traits that would result in future advantages/disadvantages in sports.  This is an area that I do not want to be discussing or thinking about as I have no children.  However if I did, I would really have to be convinced of the science to allow this type of treatment to occur.  I want every parent to have the opportunity to provide the best life for their child and would never want the government to take away that option, but some decisions should have limits on what is best for the “General Welfare” of the remainder.

    In my opinion I think indoctrinating kids in religious belief is antithetical to a cohesive society, but I do not want the government to tell me that I cannot teach my kid religion.  However, society also knows that allowing parents to only teach religion would result in sectarian violence and has tempered that problem by requiring public education.

    Advocates on both sides are entrenched in their own beliefs, while the rest of society looks around and says it seems cut and dry to me; at this point in time, transgendered citizens should not be able to compete on gendered sports teams.

  3. This Transgender issue also revolves around MONEY. They qualify for disability payment from SSI. It still recognized mental illness. So all us taxpayers pay for it. They can start to draw disability money at young
    Age and for life. Don’t kid yourself MONEY is figuring into this. All on taxpayers dime. As usual

  4. It’s pathetic to hear the alphabet group whine about losing their “rights”.
    They want special rights not afforded others. Truly insane thinking.
    Non discrimination does not mean they get to dictate new sex identities, force those who disagree with their wants to agree and demand children have private rights against their parents.
    Enough is enough. Being treated equally does not mean specially.

  5. Wasted time. Trans, homo, hetero. Whatever. I could care less about someone’s sexuality. Your privacy, my privacy is NO PLACE FOR THE GOVERNMENT OR LEGISLATION. Try getting real. How about trans sports for trans only. May not garner much notoriety.

  6. It is agreed that “government should sparingly intervene in citizens’ private decisions”. I stress that the key term here is “private”. However, regradless athletic prowess, a biological male competing in a women’s sport, using a women’s restroom, showering with female teammates and several similar interactions is no longer a “private” matter. This not bigotry; it merely points out a biological (and societal) fact, and a difficult matter to address.

  7. There’s one NCAA student that this applies to, and that student came in 5th in a recent meet. That means that four women were ahead of her. It is not the “threat” that is being spread.

    This is another right-wing “controversy” that takes up time and money while real issues are being ignored.

    1. A fabricated problem from the gullible ol’ party.

      It should be no surprise that the gop solution to their “problem” includes bigotry, discrimination, hate, and fear mongering.

      Low information voters are easier to manipulate when they are scared.

      1. “Low information voters are easier to manipulate when they are scared.”
        That’s why they are deplorable people (Hillary) and more informed, obviously more intelligent people should dump food and drink on their heads if they are seen eating out in public (Pelosi).
        What a great way to embrace democracy.

        1. Those who believe in qanon, stolen election nonsense, christian nationalism, and chrump as their “savior” are low information voters. The term is more kind than other titles that should be given to them.

          Low information voters regurgitate fox news talking points and claim them as their own independent thoughts. Low information voters aren’t able to separate facebook memes from fact. Low information voters do and think what the right wing echo chamber tells them to do. Low information voters think fox news is their new gospel. They don’t care that it’s been proven and admitted that they lied to their viewers for ratings.

          To be offended for calling a spade a spade is laughable.

    2. Said swimmer also won three events and set five NCAA records a little over a year ago…..closely follow by the swimmers transgender teammate.

  8. Why is this article posted as “news” instead of “op-ed”?
    Seems like any publication having in it’s title “How did we get here?” is going to contain writer’s opinion along with the facts. Unless WyoFile believes the writers opinions are in fact, factual.

    1. Well said, you are getting right to the exact point in all of this: journalism is dead and has come back as activism. The people that are doing it don’t even realize they are doing it. I wish they would dig deeper and think about what you said and not what their professors told them to push for.

      1. Thanks for your reply Troy. Funny you mention professors…. I taught at UW for 24 years. Fortunately, it was in engineering, so all I had to teach was Newtonian concepts from 100’s of years ago; never recently woked up social concepts of today.
        I don’t understand the accelerating societal dynamics of the modern world at all. I’m too simple/binary to veer off from the reality I’ve believed is real over the last 7 decades. I mean, I don’t care what somebody wants to believe and aspire to … so long as it doesn’t interfere with other people’s beliefs and aspirations.
        Identify as a mushroom in the forest, great! But don’t tell everybody else they can’t walk in the forest because they may step on you. Or take a leak on your head. If I’m in the forest, I won’t worry about where I go pee as long as it’s private.

    2. I have re-read this article several times and it takes a great deal of study to see “how we got here”.  You have indicated that you are of the science persuasion which operates on a different set of rules to see what facts may be used to support an argument.  Newtonian principles have not changed over time and neither has the ways one uses or teaches those principles.  I have a science background but I use that background to evaluate regulations within the bounds of the law.  For instance the law on drinking water says I only have to test for certain contaminants if 25 or more people are drinking the water I serve.  If it is only 24 then there are no requirements for me to test to the same level when it was 25 served.  Laws devised by society are tempered with risk/cost outcomes that are supposedly constitutional in nature.

      It has taken me a while to understand this nuance so it is understandable why you are asking whether it is opinion or news?  To me It is news due to the links to the legislation supporting the premise the author is making.  Reading and understanding what was repealed in the law and what was replaced is not the same as studying physics but I have finally parsed the method to the madness.

      My parsing of the author’s premise indicates that lawmakers were supportive of removing laws that impeded on what consenting adults considered fun in the privacy of their own homes but are less supportive when actions are taken that upset the “General Welfare” of society in the public space.  I think the LGBTQ advocates and the Freedom Caucus miss the difference in how society reacts to private decisions and public ones.

      To me abortion is the same issue, it’s a private one that is of no business of my neighbors and no business of the States.  Fairness in sports is not a private decision but a public one and we all should have a say on what that means.

  9. I could care less whether boys want to be girls or vise versa, but NO biological male should be allowed to compete in women’s sports. Nature, not desire made males bigger and stronger than females, and I am sorry if they can’t cut it competing against their own sex, but that’s life.

  10. The LGBTQ community has had a lot of success in the civil rights arena in recent years, including gay marriage. That said, allowing biological males athletes to compete against biological females athletes creates an uneven playing field, as evidenced by the reverse being a non issue. I mean, how many biological females who identify as males are being denied or even asking for the opportunity to play football for instance? If they did I don’t think anyone would say no. So I’m not sure this is a civil rights issue. Perhaps the long term answer is to have a transgender classification for certain sports.

  11. If I remember correctly, repeated attempts to include LGBTQ+ in workplace anti-discrimination laws have failed.

    1. A number of legislators have voted against anti-discrimination laws because they didn’t want to create a new protected class with all the litigation it would create, not because they were against gay people. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it.

  12. This group already has all the rights given to any citizen. Also there are no such thing as “transgender”. They simply are male trying to pretend to be woman. Or woman trying to be male. Only two genders. Female/Male. That’s it.

    1. In fact, there are often biological reasons for becoming a different gender than the one you got assigned at birth, especially in small rural hospitals. If the baby’s gender is not totally obvious, and it isnt always, a doctor will say, “ah a little boy ( or girl) ” and as time goes on the real biogical nature of the child kicks in.No trans person simply wants to be the opposite gender– waaay too much trouble especially in a state like Wyoming . Also chromosomes ,as i understand it, may determine a gender that isnt obvious. As a child I wanted to be a boy and wore flannel shirts and bought a baseball mitt ( I presumably intuited that boys had more advantages in the culture of the time) but i never thought I WAS a boy as a girl who today can
      transition does . Advice to all cis gendered people: You wont ever get this so dont try. Simply accept what you cant understand.

      1. Vickie. Days of old that was called being a Tom Boy and always accepted. Still is. The problem is when they want their own restroom. Want to partake in sports. It does seem more boys want to partake in girls sports than vice versa. That does happen but it also more accepted. No one really cares what anyone does. Problem start with the waving it in our faces. Pushing the envelope always results in push back. This T group really needs to be dropped from LB group. They represent very small percentage of population but cause greatest amount of trouble. But regardless LBGQT crowd would go extinct with out straight people. They don’t breed or recreate. So they will die off. If communism/socialism does take over USA that group will be PURGED. RIght now they are just handy trouble making group. Commies take over. They are toast. Done. Purged.

        1. “They will die off”

          Funny how gay people have existed for thousands upon thousands of years.

        2. “No one really cares what anyone does.”

          Then you bring up a bunch of points about how you actually DO care what people do, even when it doesnt affect you.

          1. I think you extrapolated a lot from what Larry Skow said. He didn’t say anything about caring, he only wrote about his observations.
            I don’t care what my neighbor cooks on his bbq grill. But if he claims to be a vegan while cooking and eating beef, all the while complaining about how I don’t respect him for being vegan, I feel I have the right to call him out on it.
            Observations vs. caring are exclusive concepts.