The first transgender student to join a University of Wyoming sorority knew not everyone would accept her. Still, I doubt she anticipated the full force of the hatred that was headed her way.
“To those detractors I say that I understand where you’re coming from, but at the end of the day I wish they would see me as who I am,” she told the UW student newspaper, The Branding Iron, in October.
Earlier this month, however, Todd Schmidt, a Laramie Faith Community Church member, mounted a one-man campaign against the trans student. When university officials refused to let him publicly harass the student in the campus’s Wyoming Union, about one-quarter of state legislators quickly jumped to his defense, not hers, and have threatened to take out their anger on UW by cutting its budget.
Vilifying a student for their identity is unconscionable. To witness elected officials condone and back up this behavior is beyond disheartening.
Wyoming’s transgender population is small. Earlier this year a study by the Williams Institute at UCLA’s Law School estimated only 200 youths ages 14-17, and 2,100 adults, identify as transgender in the state. But the far-right leaders of the Wyoming Republican Party — always on the lookout for an enemy with which to stoke fears to fuel its political machine — have been developing an anti-transgender agenda for several years. Their alliance with Schmidt makes their hateful aims crystal clear.
Schmidt, who has reportedly been preaching Christianity on campus for 17 years, has regularly rented a table in the student union on Fridays where he hawks books and pamphlets about alleged government conspiracies, creationism and other fringe topics.
On Dec. 2, Schmidt placed a large sign on the table’s skirting that singled out the sorority member: “God created male and female,” it read, “and [Name redacted] is a male.”
Students intervened to block the sign, and a university official asked Schmidt to remove the student’s name. He complied. But the damage was done. Media organizations have redacted the student’s name in the interest of safety.
University officials later suspended Schmidt’s tabling rights. The preacher then quickly pivoted, positioning himself as the victim of a free speech attack.
“It started when people saw the sign, particularly females,” Schmidt told The Branding Iron. “They were agitated, quickly making phone calls to spread my message. Then a bigger crowd gathered. They wanted to block my sign so nobody could see it, with them accusing me of being unkind and not friendly.”
Let me add reckless to that list. While casting himself in the role of God’s messenger, Schmidt showed no concern for the student’s safety in a political climate where transgender individuals are verbally and physically attacked. A gunman killed five people just last month at a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs, including a trans woman.
In a letter released to the public, UW President Ed Seidel said Schmidt’s actions “violated the university policy of prohibiting discrimination and harassment.” The university suspended his privileges to reserve a table in the union for one year, but he is still allowed to preach in other parts of the campus.
In response, 25 state lawmakers and Chuck Gray, secretary of state-elect, sent a letter of their own, claiming the university violated Schmidt’s rights. They demanded the university “cherish and protect the First Amendment rights of all, including those who believe in biological reality.”
The letter ended with a brazen reminder about who controls UW’s funding.
“As those charged with the responsible allocation of funding through the legislative process, we hope that the time-honored tenets [of] both our Constitution and Bill of Rights are safe and secure at our local State University,” their letter concludes.
Schmidt told the Branding Iron that he is “just trying to tell the truth and bring people to God.” There are, he said, “not any more genders than [two]. Biology teaches everybody about that.”
No, that’s incorrect. Not all of God’s creatures fit neatly into two buckets, and they never have. Some people are born with male chromosomes and female sexual organs. The inverse is also true. There are also plenty of biologically intersex individuals — folks with mix-and-match internal and external genitals. Factor in secondary sexual characteristics as well — breasts, patterns of body hair, etc. — and the spectrum quickly broadens even further.
That, dear reader, is biological reality. And we’ve only touched on the natural range of anatomical and physical diversity, which in turn is only one piece of our complex gender-psychology puzzles.
There are a multitude of resources available, but I recommend Schmidt and legislators who agree with him check out the Mayo Clinic’s website to understand that “transgender” is an umbrella term covering a range of gender identities and expressions “that might fall outside the idea that all people can be classified as only one of two genders — male or female (gender binary).”
Gender identity is the internal sense that one can be male, female, neither or both. There’s much more for politicians and clergy to learn about this subject, but it’s a good place to start — particularly if they don’t want middle-school biology students to publicly embarrass them.
More than 20 national sororities allow transgender students to become members and live at their facilities if they identify as female. The sorority is a private club, it has a contract agreement with UW to house members on campus, it receives no funding from the university and its members voted for the student in question to join them. What about that sounds like it warrants government intervention? I recall a day not so long ago when conservative meant, among other things, keep the government out of my bedroom and my body.
But why let the truth get in the way of a good old-fashioned political strong-arming?
Of course, this isn’t the first time the religious right has come for the uncomfortable truths of higher education, nor will it be the last.
During the 2022 session, Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) persuaded the Senate to pass a budget amendment to eliminate UW’s Gender and Women’s Studies Department. But the House balked, and a compromise was reached that merely required the department to provide two reports to the Legislature.
But Steinmetz said either she or another legislator will bring back the budget amendment next year.
Earlier this year, the Senate overwhelmingly passed the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,” which banned transgender athletes from competing in women’s college and girls’ high school sports. But the House refused to hear the bill, and it mercifully died.
With the suddenly powerful far-right House Freedom Caucus in place, I have no doubt a similar bill will pass in 2023. The group will also ramp up attacks on county and school librarians and library boards, who have been belittled for the past year by residents who want to empty shelves of LGBTQ-themed books, particularly ones aimed at helping transgender youths cope with many challenges.
According to the 2022 Trevor Project’s national LGBTQ mental health survey, 83% of trans or nonbinary youth worry state or local laws may prevent them from playing sports; 91% believe laws may deny them bathroom access; and 93% fear passage of laws denying them access to gender-affirming medical care.
When did the fear of transgender youths and adults become so pervasive in Wyoming that many residents want to shut down all activities that bring them any joy and acceptance in their lives, including joining a sorority?
“Equal Rights” is emblazoned on Wyoming’s state seal as a shared, precious value. In the days following Schmidt’s attack on the UW student, Gov. Mark Gordon tweeted that targeted attacks on LGBTQ people are out of step with Wyoming’s historical legacy, pointing to the Wyoming Constitution, which “speaks clearly and emphatically about civil rights and equality for ‘all members of the human race.’ Tolerance and understanding are essential to the health of our state and our nation.”
But if we don’t back that kind of talk up with our laws and actions, why should anyone believe it’s still synonymous with who we are?