A group of University of Wyoming students participate in a silent protest on Dec. 2, 2022 in response to recent anti-LGBTQ incidents. (Madelyn Beck/WyoFile)

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.

Opinion

“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.

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.

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?

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. The sorority votes to let them in and are kind and excepting. The so called man of god took offense with it. Instead of loving thy neighbor and living his life as a Jesus teaches. He decided to post a sign with the students name. Knowing the trouble it would stir up. Then conservatives take offense and threaten the colleges budget. People in the comments saying well the woke left is attacking us. The preacher started this. And then cried when he was called to task. Jesus teaches to love thy neighbor and what of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Before you you say wokeness and the left are attacking you. Maybe just maybe it’s you that is the problem. You get what you give in life.

  2. So with the concept of we are all God’s creatures apparently forgotten in this situation……….and beyond the grasp of our legislators……..
    I think we need to go a step further. We need to get rid of the whole equality state motto.
    Let’s tear down the equality statues and burn the books, wait burn the libraries

    The Good Christian man that posted the sign, with the students name on it apparently forgot his religious beliefs of love his fellow man or woman. He put an individual in danger. Then he caused the situation to go blow up by blasting the issue thru the media. He was getting his 15 minutes of fame. it should be his 15 minutes of shame.

    Let us not forget what happen to Matthew Shepard.

    Let’s hear it for the stupidity of Chuck Gray and the rest of the racist, sexiest,
    Trump loving law makers we have in Wyoming.

    What happened to the concept of love they fellow man/women.

    Although I am not a high religious person I know that the word of God is higher than the word of man. The constitution is the word of man I firmly believe in the constitution, but our legislators like to pick and choose how they interpret it.

    How dare the legislators threaten the purse strings of the University of Wyoming. How petty how small how unloving.

    We are so far away from the Wyoming concept of help your neighbor that I grew up with.

  3. Thank you Kerry for writing this piece and fostering this dialogue. I am learning so much this Advent. You are absolutely correct cj, Luke does infact document the circumcision of Jesus, and many Christian sects make this first shedding of the blood of Christ a central focus of celebration. To each according to their need. I myself happen to be very grateful to have not had to have my own genetalia carved up in such unsanitary conditions by the local rabbis as a prerequisite for receiving my God given name. You are equally on point to feel the need to speak out against those that would persecute any soul even unto death for their beliefs. Not really sure how Karl Marx fits in to all of this……but again…..to each his own..

    1. And yet, the full reference, if only coincidental, is not lost on discerning readers: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” —Karl Marx. (Atheist).
      Incidentally, perhaps most famous among the many works of Ambrose Bierce (author, “journalist”, and atheist) “A Devil’s Dictionary”, a dark and satirical piece where Bierce cited the definitions to numerous “authorities” who were merely pseudo names. The authority for “Liberty”? “Martha Braymance”. Coincidence?
      Eternity seems an inordinate wager for a few fleeting moments of shallow satisfaction derived in the mockery of God and persecution of His tremendously flawed, but Faithful chosen people. Monitors here will afford you limitless responses, a perk exclusive to those who share their ideology. Accordingly, may God bless you and keep you, and may you find comfort and true wisdom in His word.

  4. ….. but “vilifying” conservatives is the Marxist way. Marxists seek the destruction of country, family, faith, and patriotism. Marxists only proliferate through indoctrination. When you can’t be influenced or controlled, they come for your children. Marxists try to manipulate the language, the narrative, and thought; and when they don’t succeed they try to criminalize your speech and your thoughts. They hate you, and would rather see you imprisoned or dead than free to oppose them. How many hundreds of millions have been murdered under Marxist tyranny? Citizens worldwide are getting wise to their newest of diabolical schemes.

  5. One of my all time favorite stories is this one about a fella with infinite patience coming uncorked and flipping over tables stacked full of dirty money to prove a point. This fella (biblically speaking) happened to have been immaculately conceived and born of woman, and therefore (scientifically speaking) would have been in possession of only human mitochondrial DNA. Those (for those of you taking notes and keeping score) are the chromosomes found exclusively on Eve’s side of the genetic equation. There is no historical record (as far as I know) as to what particular hardware this ancient Israeli carpenter happened to be packing under that linen robe . Nor does it really even need to matter one iota or speck. We get all wrapped up arguing about his/her packages and they/their bows and what belongs to whom and why and why not….and we completely miss the real gift (The gift of forgiveness).
    Peace, Love, and a very Merry Christmas to all!

    1. Thank you Martha Bramance! I am a retired Biology teacher and I hadn’t thought of such a wonderful way to explain why Christians should be able to accept transgender people. In fact, I am not much of a church goer, so hadn’t thought much about this but it makes perfect sense. I will use this in the future. Thank you for explaining it so succinctly. Do I need to cite your message or is it ok if I impress all my friends and relatives with my knowledge and wit.

    2. “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord . . .
      21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.”
      From the Gospel of Luke (about “the Son of God”). The Bible is pretty clear (if you actually read it).

    3. Martha:

      Mary conceived Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit, not immaculate conception (if you believe this stuff). She was conceived through immaculate conception, not Jesus. Or, at least one popular faith which celebrates Christmas says so.

      It seems reasonable to assume that the Lord Almighty was able to create any human form with any specific features, or DNA. And, therefore, it is unlikely that He would have had any problem making sure Jesus was a man.

      I don’t say this to argue against more acceptance of those who differ from the majority. I only do so to add a little more perspective. Obviously, genetic mutations can wreck havoc on the best of plans but the plan always seemed to be to have two types of people: men and women.

      No matter your opinion or sexual nature, may God bless you all with the love of Jesus Christ, and your neighbors, this holiday season.

      1. Merry Christmas George:
        The Holy Trinity is a really tough nut to smash isn’t it. What the Architect of the Universe is capable of designing really is completely beyond our comprehension, and until we mortals possess the insight necessary to even turn applesauce back into apples we would all do well to acknowledge this and stay in the very center of our assigned lanes. A Good Carpenter understood the plans well enough, and He roughed out some of the framing for us. The intricacy of the design, and beauty of the creation really is stunning. To imagine hearing the voices of angels reverberating within those finished walls and to feel that Spirit resonate in unison with your soul….That is the life’s work of each and every one of us George. How good are you with a hammer?

  6. You all realize that the transgender in question is planning to live in a women’s sorority house?

    I think that is a problem

    1. Applying to a sorority is enough reason to be singled out by a hate preacher?

      The attempt to justify the religious rights hatred and bigotry isn’t appropriate.

  7. It has always baffled me, why, in a state where people value their independence and right to be themselves, they seem to think in some areas they can impose their beliefs on others. (See comment by Mark Roseman – “western values”). If there is such a thing as western values, that includes independent thoughts, beliefs and behaviors. People’s gender expressions and health decisions are simply their OWN business!
    And, as a counselor, I am fully convinced that we have many more LBGTQ+ folks than a handful – they are just too afraid for their safety to identify – so sad!

  8. Thank you Kerry for this provocative piece. Bigotry is NOT a Wyoming value or even a family value. Freedom is defined as: the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. The House Freedom Caucus seems more like the “House Big Bother is Watching” Caucus.

  9. The reason there are few transgender folks in Wyoming is the unwelcome attitude toward our natural born Wyoming youth who might differ some from the mainstream. They leave. That applies to some other minorities as well. Intolerance – often subtle, but ubiquitous.

  10. Free speech and freedom of association mean only what SOS Chuck Gray and Sen. Steinmetz say they mean.

    Mr. Drake should know that by now.

    These people live in a constricted world and they want to force the rest of us into it, science and Christian love be damned.

  11. Mr. Drake seems to me to be taking the perspective of a godless, science-denier. The UW left community is more than willing to crush and vilify conservative, western values in the pursuit of ever-changing “wokeness”. When stating scientific fact is attacked, UW needs to be defunded from the state. Mark R. Laramie

    1. Definition of woke: adjective
      having or marked by an active awareness of systemic injustices and prejudices, especially those involving the treatment of ethnic, racial, or sexual minorities