Students and community members gather in Lander’s Centennial Park on May 24 to protest the school board’s recent decision to remove five protected classes from its non-discrimination policy. (Sofia Jeremias/WyoFile)

School district officials in Lander are really making LGBTQ students feel “special.”

Opinion

The students told the Fremont County School District 1 Board they are bullied daily and even threatened with rape and death, but trustees still removed them from the district’s anti-discrimination policy.

Why take an unprecedented action to make endangered students feel even less safe? Trustee Brett Berg said at a May 17 meeting the board doesn’t want to “create divisions” within the schools.

I’m not surprised. In the nearly quarter of a century since gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was beaten to death by two Laramie men in 1998, I’ve heard state lawmakers and other officials proclaim repeatedly that the LGBTQ community doesn’t deserve “special rights,” and that singling out the group is reverse discrimination.

This injustice has sunk to a new low in Lander, just two years after the school board acted with compassion and added sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of classes protected from discrimination. Last month trustees voted 4-3 to take LGBTQ students and staff off the list, along with veteran status, marital status and pregnancy. 

The debate over the issue clearly shows what drove them to action. 

“Do we have any furries in our school district?” asked one trustee, referring to the far-right’s latest obsession, a supposed conspiracy of people who dress in animal costumes. “When are we going to add furries to our policy? Where does it stop?”

Fear of furries aside, Vice Chairman Scott Jensen told LGBTQ students they are valued. He would have more credibility if he hadn’t added this misguided advice: “You should be leery of any adult that tells you you are somehow a victim by default just because you belong to a particular group.”

No, what makes them victims was spelled out in a letter to the board from 10 members of Lander Valley High School’s LGBTQ+ club. They reported two threats of mass murder and other violence.

Several members recounted a student saying he was going to “bring his guns to school and line up all the trannys outside and shoot them.” Another allegedly said, “We should kill all the fags. We should lock them in the school and set fire to it so we can watch them all burn.”

The incidents were reportedly investigated but deemed to not be viable threats, according to educators at the meeting, so no disciplinary action was taken. Substitute the slurs for any other group of students, and I have no doubt these statements would have been considered serious. But when bullies face no consequences for their actions, they feel emboldened.

LVHS librarian Nate Shoutis, who was prevented from reading the entire letter because he couldn’t squeeze it into the board’s arbitrary two-minute time limit, said several LGBTQ students have been threatened with being “beaten and raped.” One was groped and assaulted “to prove that she was a girl.”

LGBTQ students reported they are routinely barked at by their bullies, on and off campus, and mocked by classmates who grab their wrists to expose where they’ve cut themselves. Some have been “outed” to friends and family, and had to pick up the pieces of shattered relationships.

Julia Fairbank, a primary care physician assistant, explained that “the physical and psychological stressors inflicted through discrimination can be vast and deep.”

Such ongoing trauma can have deadly consequences. The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that LGBTQ adolescents are 3.5 times as likely to attempt suicide as their heterosexual peers.

Student Willow Wells wept while testifying, but told the board it wasn’t out of anger, but “from exhaustion having to fight for every breath the moment I walk into school every morning.”

Lander is far from the only city where LGBTQ youth are mistreated and abused, but it’s the only one I know of where the adults in charge of schools have taken away their protection.

Before the board’s vote, Walt Seeley of Lander’s Trinity Episcopal Church told trustees that “discrimination has created these protected classes for gender identity and sexual orientation.”

“Nobody is asking for special treatment, they’re asking for equal treatment,” he said.

Seeley’s remarks were in line with the overwhelming support for the policy from educators, parents, students, mental health professionals and others.

Not only didn’t the board listen, but one trustee even chastised them for speaking out.

“I wish we could have this type of crowd every week at these meetings,” said Taylor Jacobs. “I wish you all were to come here when we’re talking about discipline and standards-based grading, and real issues that impact our schools.”

Such open disrespect for constituents from an elected official was once rare, but sadly it’s becoming the norm for how LGBTQ students and their supporters are now treated in public.

The extreme-right central committee of the Wyoming Republican Party has made preventing the state from passing LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws one of its top legislative priorities. It’s an issue that’s dead in the water now every time someone dares to bring it up.

At Donald Trump’s recent Casper rally, transgender individuals were targeted for special abuse.

“We will save our kids and we will also keep men the hell out of women’s sports,” the former president said, to boisterous applause. Harriet Hageman, the Wyoming GOP congressional candidate Trump came here to endorse, was rewarded the same way for declaring she’s “fed up with boys competing in girls’ sports.”

Then there was this knee-slapper from another MAGA cheerleader, U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colorado): “I’m the mother of four boys that I’m teaching to be men, before liberals teach them to be women.” 

Trump fantasized about coaching a women’s basketball team and asking LeBron James if he ever had “any thoughts about someday becoming a woman.” His all-transgender team, he predicted, would make him the greatest coach in history. 

“It’s so crazy, we have to get things straightened out,” Trump concluded. “We’re on such a bad and stupid path, and the world is laughing at us.” 

Fortunately, not every politician gets away with it. U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming) was resoundingly booed and heckled during her commencement speech at the University of Wyoming when she incorrectly claimed it’s “a fundamental scientific truth” that there can only be two sexes, males and females.

“It was never my intention to make anyone feel un-welcomed or disrespected,” Lummis said the next day. But a clueless, “I’m sorry you were offended” line is not an apology.

Meanwhile, at the Lander meeting, Board Chairman Jared Kail reminded the audience who has all the power to make school decisions. Hint: it’s not the public.

“Make no mistake, this is a political body,” he said. “What we do is we make policy, we set policy. The mistake people often make is that this is not a partisan board. We don’t as run Democrats, we don’t run as Republicans. We just run as community members. But that does not mean that we’re removed from politics for setting policy. And in this case, it is up to us to set policy.”

The board should look to national legislators and other education administrations that have not included the language in their statutes, he said. He voted in favor of removing the classifications.

Mr. Chairman, I don’t think anyone who disagrees with the board’s decision believes that politics did not play a role. In fact, they will get an opportunity to make their own political views known when the four members who removed the classifications from the policy try to get re-elected.

CLARIFICATION: This column has been updated to include Jared Kail’s full quote about the non-partisan nature of the board. -Ed.

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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  1. “Several members recounted a student saying he was going to “bring his guns to school and line up all the trannys outside and shoot them.” Another allegedly said, “We should kill all the fags. We should lock them in the school and set fire to it so we can watch them all burn.” They reported two threats of mass murder and other violence.”

    So, this happened during the time the school board “acted with compassion and added sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of classes protected from discrimination”

    Clearly, the policy was nothing more than virtue signaling from the get go. It saves none from bullies, or threats. Laws are in place to protect people from real crimes.

    The LGBTQIA community would do themselves a favor by living life as a good neighbor and stop overreacting to the slightest affront. And perhaps respecting those who see the world differently. Not the bullies, just the people with a different point of view.

    As for Lander, it is full of people who don’t like the LGBTQIA “agenda”. I have heard the hostility. The idea that the LGBTQIA community is “grooming” children to question their own sexuality is very real. And Lander is also full of people who don’t like the Catholic “agenda”. Or Trump’s “agenda”. Or Biden’s “agenda”. Or the NRA’s “agenda”. Everybody has an agenda. Politics proves that almost everyone reads horrors into another’s agenda. Not everybody likes everyone’s agenda. Get over it.

    The Fremont County School District should focus on its inability to meet the district’s basic needs for things like math teachers, and stopping bullies. The Lander School Board made the right policy decision. I don’t pretend to know if they did it for the “right” reasons, nor do I care. A list of classes protected from discrimination as put forth by a school district is a document that protects, and protected, none.

  2. This is the third time in recent memory that the school board has thumbed its nose at the public. Ironically the board decided to allow teachers to conceal/carry in the absence of any evidence that it’s effective, yet decided to deny protections to LGBTQ students in spite of ample evidence that there’s a problem. The arrogance is astounding.

  3. Thank you for this article. Students in Lander are even more fearful now after this confirmation that the school board majority doesn’t have their back.

    It’s interesting to note, too, that one board member who voted to remove the wording has openly discriminated against LGBTQ people in the past, one is potentially in violation of the Hatch Act, at least one is a member of a far-right extremist group in Wyoming, and another seems to think this non-partisan board is a partisan platform.

    That’s unacceptable to have these people in leadership.

    Lander continues to elect officials at every level based on a single issue platform without recognizing the consequences of the candidates other views…

    And our children are the ones who suffer most.