Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming received a boatload of bad press when he acted like another clueless politician last week by condoning violence against the gay, lesbian and transgendered community in the state.

He deserved the tongue-lashing he received from many constituents.

Enzi compounded the problem by seemingly not recognizing that what he told Greybull High School students was reprehensible. When asked by a student what he and his fellow senators are doing to improve the lives of LGBTQ people, Enzi took a thoughtful question and tried to make a joke out of it.

“I know a guy that wears a tutu and goes to the bars on Friday night and is always surprised that he gets in fights,” Enzi said. “Well, he kind of asks for it a little bit. That’s the way he winds up with that kind of problem.”

His blame-the-victim mentality showed terrible judgment on Enzi’s part, but it was particularly disturbing coming from a senator representing the state where one of the most infamous murders of a gay man occurred nearly two decades ago.

When University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was savagely attacked and killed by a pair of Laramie thugs who targeted him because he was gay, it shocked the world and set in motion a renewed gay rights movement. Congress passed a landmark federal hate crime law that bore his name. Enzi and the two other members of Shepard’s home state’s delegation voted against it.

The Greybull Standard covered Enzi’s visit to a local school and reported his offensive “tutu” remark. It took a few days but the Huffington Post picked it up, and soon it was national news.

Making a bad situation worse

What Enzi and his staff did next was make an already bad situation much worse. His press secretary, Max D’Onofrio, claimed the controversial statement was taken out of context, which clearly wasn’t true based on the audio of the event The Standard put online.

Their fall-back strategy was to say Enzi was trying to tell the students that we need more civility and a “live and let live” attitude in our society. Exactly how does one reach that conclusion by prefacing it with Enzi’s “a guy in a tutu walked into a bar and got beaten up and deserved it” story?

Enzi then issued what I call the “non-apology apology.” It was lame and self-serving. After he pointed out that no one is infallible, he added, “I apologize to anyone who has taken offense.” His wording was an insult; it made the apology an insincere, meaningless act that doesn’t admit any fault on Enzi’s part, but gladly pins the blame on anyone so sensitive they felt offended by what the senator said.

Enzi’s anti-LGBTQ statement is an example of how polarized our state and the entire nation has become. We had plenty of problems before Donald Trump became president, but his rise to power has ushered in a new era in which it’s OK to openly promote violence against anyone who is different than the majority. Enzi joked about someone being beaten up because the senator thought he could get away with it.

All one has to do is look at the videos of Trump telling his supporters at rallies to rough up protesters to realize that being intolerant has become the norm in right-wing America. When the leader of the free world is cheered by his fans when he screams “punch him in the face” and “knock the crap out of him!” he’s showing us how far we’ve fallen.

Sara Burlingame, public education and outreach coordinator of Wyoming Equality, a gay rights advocacy organization, noted that Enzi has an abysmal voting record on LGBTQ issues. Still, she said she was surprised when she learned about Enzi’s comments because he’s never said anything like it before.

If there’s anything positive to come out of this embarrassing incident for the state, it’s that Enzi’s voting record is now in the spotlight. Zach Ford of the website Think Progress wrote an article in the wake of this controversy that noted Enzi was awarded a “zero” on the Human Rights Campaign’s congressional scorecard in 2016. He didn’t take a single pro-LGBTQ position.

Remember House Bill 135, the wretched piece of “religious freedom” legislation that was withdrawn in the State Legislature this past session before it could even come up for a vote? The backlash was so strong, supporters knew they didn’t dare actually debate it.

According to Ford, Enzi was one of the original sponsors of a similar federal bill called the First Amendment Defense Act, which would allow religious organizations and individuals to legally discriminate against LGBTQ people. He also supports Trump’s proposed executive order that guarantees organizations can discriminate without fear of repercussion from the government.

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The Wyoming senator’s support for legalizing discrimination against gays and lesbians is chilling. It’s no wonder the Matthew Shepard Foundation said Enzi’s words in Greybull “are exactly the kind of hateful remarks we are working against in Wyoming and beyond.”

The Shepard Foundation added that up to 61 percent of hate crime victims don’t report the crime to the police “because they are afraid of not being believed, while also having to be fearful of being re-victimized by those in power, who should be defending their rights.”

Enzi should definitely be defending their rights, Burlingame stressed. “There still needs to be so much more conversation [about the issue]. He is so out of touch it wouldn’t even occur to him that what he said would evoke fear and panic and the threat of violence in our community, so let’s get [Enzi] in touch with his LGBTQ constituents. They want to talk to him.”

Wyoming Equality capitalized on the attention given to Enzi’s remarks by holding a multi-city fundraiser Friday called #ToLiveAndLetTutu. The public was invited to wear tutus to parties at bars, schools and churches, and the proceeds went to the Wyoming Equality Gay-Straight Alliance to set up supportive programs at schools. Events were held in Cheyenne, Laramie, Casper, Sheridan and other cities throughout the state.

Burlingame said a Tutu fundraiser was even held in Washington, D.C., that will benefit Wyoming. She said Enzi was invited but his secretary said he couldn’t attend because of other commitments. “We at least extended the offer,” she said.

Burlingame said Enzi was wrong about how people in Wyoming would react to seeing men in tutus. “We think a man can show up at a bar in a pink tutu and cowboys will buy him a drink and the ladies will ask him to two-step,” she said.

 

Revelers pose in tutus outside Sweet Melissa’s in Laramie on Friday, April 28. Men and women in tutus were seen throughout town that night, as local bars offered drink specials for anyone wearing one. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

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. Sigh, these types never change until a member of their family comes out as gay….

    or they are caught in a public bathroom having a same sex encounter.

  2. Wyoming is not a place where LGBT people are welcome. They never have been and they never will be. Enzi represents the majority there. Smart people are leaving Wyoming, leaving the least populous state with a shrinking population of empty-headed people in a vast empty wasteland.

  3. You got it exactly right, Kerry.
    Bigotry and anti-gay hatred are alive and well in the “Equality State”.
    Enzi and other politicians act like there are no gays living in Wyoming or that their votes or feelings don’t matter.