Editor’s note: WyoFile is pleased to present the second installment of our special project: “The Pete Simpson Forum.” Pete Simpson, a lifelong Wyoming resident who has been active in civic matters, has teamed up with WyoFile to initiate a conversation about what it means to live, work and play in Wyoming and how people from a wide spectrum can engage in respectful discussions about our state can best deal with a host of challenges and opportunities. The forum will be to invite people with different backgrounds to write about a particular topic. WyoFile will publish a pair of columns each month. Pete Simpson will not provide an introduction for this month’s columns, but WyoFile will ask for his response to these pieces at a later date. 

Simpson Forum: My Wyoming identity

by Robert Johnston
— September 10, 2013

Oh God! Do I have to admit that I wasn’t born here; that I don’t have a long history of rough-necking or ranching? Do I have to admit that I don’t hunt and fish? However, I did go fishing a month ago in the streams near Story. Do I really have to tell you that I am a Las Vegas transplant who grew up back East, and that I have only lived here for coming up on eleven years?

Robert Johnston

Wyoming is a special place. Not only do we have the best sky in the country, but a journey through our state provides vistas which still give me chills. Our clouds are amazing. I continue to love driving through the state, and I wish I took more time to get off the highway or road and just walk through the hills and mountains and prairies.

The truth of the matter is that my partner, Carl, and I (yes, we’re both guys) moved to Casper following a June visit here to see his dad who had just had a heart attack and a stroke. It was my second visit to Wyoming — the first was to see his dad get married to his second ex-wife at the now defunct bar in Powder River a couple of years earlier. During both trips Carl got to show me some of his favorite spots — the Fort Bridger museum, Green River/Rock Springs (where he was born), Independence Rock, and the Wind River Range.

Upon seeing his dad, we made a somewhat impulsive decision to move here to help with his care. In two days we’d bought a home near downtown Casper; Carl transferred his work as a kitchen designer with Home Depot, and I returned to Las Vegas to sell the house and move our two dogs to Casper. Two months later, at the beginning of September 2002 (on our fifth anniversary of being together as a couple), I moved here.

Related story: Wyoming’s political identity by Julia Stuble

Within a month or two, I was employed as a contract employee with the Wyoming Department of Health doing HIV Prevention work. My work initially involved my driving all over the state as needed, and to Cheyenne a couple of times a month to check in with staff at the state office and to help orient me to life in Wyoming. I continued my involvement with the HIV Community Planning Group (I did this for years in Nevada) in Wyoming and learned firsthand the stigma of HIV infection (or infection with any STD, including hepatitis).

As I’ve said for years here, I could count on one hand the number of individuals who were HIV positive who were willing to be public about their diagnosis. Sometimes Wyoming isn’t a safe place.

My partner and I started volunteering at the Nicolaysen Art Museum as a way to meet people in Casper and as a means to give back to the community. Eleven years later, we still volunteer at the NIC. Carl is helping Susie Markus from the Wyoming Health Council facilitate this year’s Positive Spaces Retreat in Cheyenne in September for persons living with HIV. Before my retirement last December, I enjoyed a number of adventures with Susie and Meaghan McClellan (formerly with the Department of Education) across Wyoming working with disenfranchised youth – whether they were Native Americans living on the Wind River Reservation or gay/lesbian/transgender youth in Casper, Cheyenne, Laramie and Pinedale. We traveled the state doing “Beyond Mathew Shepard: Being Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender in Rural Wyoming” workshops, hosting GSA Leadership Summits in Laramie and Casper, all while trying to create a safe place for many of our youth.

I loved working with the staff in the Communicable Disease Section of the Department of Health. We worked together with AdBay to develop an interactive web site and social media campaign on HIV and STD testing called www.knowyo.org. The web site offers free vouchers for HIV-STD-Hepatitis screening at public health offices and family planning clinics around the state. I continue to salute those nurses and others on the front lines in our communities who work with local residents to make sure that their children are vaccinated; that youth and adults are tested for HIV, hepatitis and other STDs; and that new parents are given the tools to raise their infants appropriately. For the past year I have served as president of the Wyoming Public Health Association.

Following my retirement from state service in January, I started a new career at the 12-24 Club as Program Director for Project ReGain, a life skills and career development program for adults recovering from alcohol and drug addiction and mental illness using the Code of the West as the foundation. Again, having the opportunity to work with a stigmatized population and helping them regain a foothold in society has been extremely rewarding and gives me hope.

The friends we have made here are amazing! Some are in recovery; most aren’t. Some are gay or lesbian or transgender; most aren’t. We find that we have a lot in common with our friends. For Carl, it is usually a good glass of wine or Wyoming Whiskey and a discussion of art or movies or design. For me, it is often what biography related to American history or politics I’ve just read, or my adventures with colleagues in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction, or Penn State and Steeler football or gardening.

But our interests aren’t all that define us. What I really love is that we get to meet all kinds of people in Wyoming, many of whom might wish that we weren’t gay or that we wouldn’t talk about it so much. Sometimes we honor that; oftentimes we don’t. We find that we have a lot in common with our friends even if we don’t always share the same interests or values.

But my goal has always been to look for our similarities and not our differences. This is difficult sometimes. Wyoming seems to thrive on the duality of Western grit, independence, and no federal interference while still accepting and relying on federal dollars to support social service programs, national parks, and the support of the arts. We have a history of harassing those unlike ourselves such as the Chinese residents of Rock Springs in the 1880s, Native Americans since white settlers arrived here, and Latinos who are all suspected of being illegal immigrants while still taking pride in calling ourselves “the Equality State.” I have never lived anywhere before where racist comments are often the norm as opposed to the exception.

Matthew Shepard was murdered outside of Laramie for being gay, but our state legislature refuses to pass any hate crime legislation, and our congressional delegation doesn’t support it on a federal level. These same representatives espouse “most” mainstream Republican values but give no credence to those of us who might want them to occasionally compromise so that government can work more effectively and actually pass legislation as opposed to the gridlock we see today.

I miss the days when Senator Enzi worked with Senator Kennedy to pass key legislation related to health care and other social issues. But even to mention that here may seem to give credence to Liz Cheney’s candidacy. Todays’ gridlock and anti-Obama rhetoric may feed the Tea Party’s coffers but it appears to be paralyzing government.

Duality doesn’t always have to be negative. It is our love for this land, which many of us use for fishing, hunting and just viewing, juxtaposed with the largest coal mining equipment in the world, and coal trains that seem to go on for miles, and oil and gas rigs that pepper the landscape that brings us together as acquaintances and binds us together as friends. That’s what I love about this place, but at the same time I would like the state to recognize our marriage (we were married in Windsor, Ontario over three years ago); I would like to feel safe holding hands in public with my spouse. I would like to feel that I have as much a right to live here as anyone else does.

And I will keep fighting for that right.

— Rob Johnston is the Program Director for Project ReGain, a life skills program for people in recovery at the 12-24 Club in Casper, Wyoming. He also serves as the President of the Wyoming Public Health Association. Prior to working at the 12-24 Club, Rob was the HIV Prevention Program Manager for the Wyoming Department of Health. 
 
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3 Comments

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  1. Robert, thank you for this piece. There is no question that gays and lesbians should be treated equally and with respect, same as with straight people. The question is whether new laws are needed to make this happen. True that Matthew Shepard was murdered for being gay. However, people are still being murdered for being gay every year in cities like San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles. Having hate crime laws doesn’t stop murders of gay people.

    Wyoming is the Equality State. People here tend to be socially “conservative,” yes. But people here also tend to be straightforward and to give someone the benefit of the doubt, and to at least try to treat everyone equally.

    Let me just say that I’ve been away from Wyoming for a long time. I guess I’m 5th generation. I’ve been visiting Wyoming each year from where I live now (a major coastal city). Nowadays I am “transgender,” while before I was apparently an ordinary guy. Anywhere I go in Wyoming now, as a transgender “woman,” I never have the slightest problem. Everyone treats me kindly and with respect. Why? Because I do so with them. I’m also not trying to convince them that transgender is good, that transgender should be normalized etc.; I don’t even mention that I am transgender — I just behave like an ordinary person.

    It won’t be possible to make everyone in Wyoming, particularly older folks, “comfortable” with the idea that gays, lesbians, transgender people are just ordinary people with the same rights and privileges as those of straight people. Laws won’t do it. Cultural “acceptance” will come through the presence of ordinary people of any sexuality, living ordinary lives and being good citizens like anyone else, and not making a big fuss about their sexuality. Wyoming cultural attitudes and laws concerning marriage, benefits etc. can’t and shouldn’t be expected to change as quickly as those of large liberal cities like San Francisco, states like California, countries like Canada. And as I say, hate crime laws are just more laws that most people would never break anyway; and those who would break them wouldn’t care there was a law.

  2. Robert, thank you for writing this brave and, frankly, essential piece. I can’t claim to know Wyoming as well as you, but I recently spent a year in the state thanks to a job offer I received following my graduation from college. For what it’s worth, I can say without hesitation that mainstream acceptance of the LGBT community is growing by leaps and bounds among young people in Wyoming, thanks largely to the work being done by people like you. Keep it up.

  3. Mr. Johnston, I cannot thank you enough for having the courage to speak up and speak out about your projects and experiences in Wyoming. As a recent gay transplant working for benefit equality at my workplace, it can often feel sort of lonely, and I have been starving to hear of others like yourself who can inspire me to do more to make this an equality state that accepts all of its citizens.
    Best,
    Rachel Hanan