Nearly 17 years after the death of Matthew Shepard, the city of Laramie is still trying to heal itself.
On Wednesday, it will make the largest step forward in the city’s recognition of gay rights since Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, was murdered in 1998. The Laramie City Council is poised to pass the first ordinance in Wyoming that protects people from employment and housing discrimination based upon their sexual orientation or gender identity.
It will make such discrimination a crime, as it should be, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $750 fine.
State lawmakers could have made this action unnecessary by approving a similar statewide measure in February that outlawed LGBT workplace discrimination, but the Wyoming House tripped over itself running away from Senate File 115, which was fought intensely by extremely zealous right-wing legislators.
Opponents essentially made the offensive argument that by not allowing employers to legally discriminate against homosexuals, it would violate bigots’ religious freedom rights. In one of the most shameful and incredibly stupid legislative votes in recent memory, a majority in the House agreed, 33-26.
Fortunately, a task force in Laramie had already been working on its own LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance since last summer. It went even further than the state’s proposal by adding housing and public accommodations such as bars and restaurants to the list.
The movement to protect gays and lesbians on the job began in 1975, when Pennsylvania became the first state to ban workplace discrimination in public sector employment. It’s been a long, slow process, but 19 states and the District of Columbia have added similar statutes over the years.
More than 185 cities throughout the country have also adopted ordinances prohibiting LGBT job discrimination, but none are in Wyoming. The town of Jackson has a policy that states public employees shall not be discriminated against at work, but it’s not a municipal ordinance and could be overturned at any time by town officials. Laramie’s law notably adds private employees to the protected classes.
Several executive orders by presidents provide federal LGBT employees’ protection, but a bill creating the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act — which would cover workers nationwide — has languished in Congress since 1994.
I was pleased to learn the grassroots Laramie Non-Discrimination Ordinance Task Force, which has about 20 members, both gay and straight, hasn’t had any problems drumming up support for its effort. Bria Frame, an organizer and UW student, said more than 50 businesses and 13 organizations signed the group’s pledge for a non-discrimination ordinance in the city.
“The support for this initiative from the community at large and from the city council thus far has been truly outstanding and heartwarming,” said Will Welch, chief organizer. “It is incredibly valuable to the LGBT community to know that our city is dedicated to ensuring that we live in a welcoming and safe place.”
Even though what happened to Matthew Shepard isn’t specifically a reason for the ordinance, his legacy is intrinsically tied to all gay rights issues in Laramie.
Frame was only four years old when Shepard’s badly beaten body was discovered tied to a fence outside of Laramie, the victim of two local men who targeted him for robbery and assault because he was gay. The horrific crime sent the pair to prison for life and left Laramie residents divided in their reaction to what happened. Many felt the media unfairly portrayed the city as homophobic, while others argued that the murder itself demonstrated the extreme hatred some have for gays here.
“Three years ago I came to a deeply troubled community that has been working its way through the trauma [of Shepard’s death] for years,” Frame said, quickly adding that the community “is not as bad as people think it is.”
Throughout the world, she noted, “people know Wyoming for Yellowstone National Park and Matthew Shepard — and not necessarily in that order.”
Frame certainly understood hatred growing up, since her family lived only 15 miles from a neo-Nazi camp in Montana. But her knowledge of the Shepard tragedy came mostly from television. “I was just a kid [when it happened],” she said. “I knew about Matthew Shepard, but I really didn’t get it until I came to Laramie.”
The University of Wyoming, to its credit, has policies that prohibit LGBT job discrimination. Student government has been a huge supporter of the proposed city ordinance, with the Associated Students of University of Wyoming (ASUW) unanimously adopting a resolution in favor of its passage by the city council. ASUW represents about 10,000 students.
UW officials have also backed “Ordinance 1914” for several reasons, notably economic development. At the council’s second meeting to consider the proposal, Bill Gern, UW’s vice president of research and economic development, explained that Laramie’s technology-dependent job sector requires a diverse workforce.
“This ordinance, the stake that is being made by the city council and by the community about how the community values a diverse workforce, is really important to the economic future of Laramie,” Gern said.
Frame said religious opposition to the city ordinance, which derailed the anti-discrimination bill at the state level, hasn’t been much of a factor in the Laramie debate. An amendment to create a religious exemption to the ordinance was considered during the second reading of the ordinance, but it failed on a 6-2 vote.
The council did add a provision that states nothing will impede upon people’s ability to practice their religion, nor infringe on their First Amendment rights. But as one councilman explained at the time, the new language merely states the obvious and has no real impact on the ordinance.
Frame said the task force respects the privacy of people and hasn’t gathered a lot of anecdotes about how discrimination has impacted the LGBT population at work, obtaining housing or their treatment by local establishments. But she recalled one incident that occurred about three years ago at a Laramie bar.
“A same-sex couple was dancing, and they were told to leave,” she said. “One ended up bursting into tears. It was a very tragic experience for everyone involved.”
After the new ordinance is adopted by the city, such blatant discrimination will be illegal. So will employers’ ability to fire a worker simply because he or she is homosexual or transgendered.
Now that same-sex marriages are legal in Wyoming after a federal judge threw out the state’s ban on such unions last October, it makes absolutely no sense the mere act of displaying a wedding photo on one’s desk can be a reason for job termination. Gay couples in Wyoming should not have to hide their identity to anyone, including their bosses.
Another task force organizer, Bern Haggerty, said he hopes Laramie will become a recognized leader in civil rights. It apparently already is in Wyoming — Frame said several cities, including Cheyenne, have contacted the grassroots group about starting their own anti-discrimination campaigns.
That’s exactly the right response to the Legislature’s decision to let its own homophobic fear guide the state instead of the common sense and fairness shown by many of its residents. The city of Laramie should be proud of its upcoming historic achievement, and I hope many other communities will follow its example.
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