For the 20th anniversary of the murder of Matthew Shepard five years ago, I gave countless interviews, extolling the progress that we’d made in the past two decades and exhorting my fellow Wyomingites to bring us across the finish line: pass a statewide hate crime law and face head-on the shame and grief over Matthew’s murder so many years ago. It felt like this healing was within reach, a fever that was going to break.
I was wrong.
In the last five years, the Equality State has slid backward, embracing a new form of politics and culture that I barely recognize.
Five years ago, I wouldn’t have said that my attitude was optimistic — it felt realistic. Look at the data: The most conservative state in the country had defeated every anti-LGBTQ bill for a solid 40 years. That wasn’t because Wyoming legislators were particularly in favor or opposed to gay people, but rather because we had a live-and-let-live ethic that guided our votes, shaped our culture and defined the people who call Wyoming home. At Wyoming Equality, we call this ethic the Golden Rule of the Snow Ditch: Do unto others in a snow ditch as you would have done unto you in a snow ditch.
What does that look like? If it’s December and I am heading north from Rock Springs and see that just past Farson there’s a car that has slid off the road, should I inspect their bumper stickers to see that I agree with them before I pull over to help? Should I ask who they want to kiss when they get home or who they voted for in the last election? Should I make sure their beliefs on the Trinity square up with mine, or do I dig around for that tow strap in my messy truck and step out into the storm?
I should step out into that storm. You should too. Wyoming should step out into that storm.
There is a pernicious lie that standing up for your neighbors, treating trans kids with kindness and the like are somehow out-of-state values. Nothing could be further from the truth. The murder of Matthew Shepard and what we do with that legacy seems like a litmus for how far we’ve drifted from those homegrown truths. It doesn’t require us to adopt anyone else’s values, just to live up to our own.
The Freedom Caucus and others on the far right have different ideas for Wyoming. They very much want us to ask if that stranger in the snow ditch voted for the right person in the last election. Hell, it’s not even enough to vote Republican — you have to be the right kind of Republican, i.e. not a RINO. You think that the layers of purity policing can’t get more absurd than that — but you’d be wrong. Seceding from the Union has been floated as though that were an act of patriotism, bayoneting those you disagree with as though that were the act of a Christian. The hypocrisy is deep and rank and taking hold in Wyoming.
Our leaders occasionally come through with careful encouragement, but nothing like the passion and outrage they show when coal or cattle are threatened.
And honestly, that doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. Twenty-five years after the murder of Matthew Shepard, I still choose to make my home here. And it has never been because I placed my faith in Wyoming leadership — I live here because I love this land and her people. I believe that we are unique and uniquely capable of doing hard things. I think we’re tough in a way that other places don’t encourage or cultivate. And I believe that the setbacks of the last five years will be met with the stubborn resistance that we’re known for. Don’t come here and tell us how to do things. If we remember that, if we refuse the empty promises of the “freedom for me but not for thee” party, then these last five years will be the darkness before dawn.
The analogy of dawn breaking through to a new day isn’t wholly applicable because no matter what we do in Wyoming, the sun will continue to rise. But ransoming back the soul of our state is not inevitable. You may believe that the “arc of justice” is guided by divine power, but the hands that shape that arc belong to you and me. A Wyoming strong enough to stand up for the most marginalized, a place where neighbor is a verb only happens if you act on that belief.
Matthew didn’t get to grow old, he doesn’t get to help his mother Judy in the garden or sit by the fire and read historical fiction. This fall he won’t head out to the golden hills of Natrona County to hunt with his father or brother, marveling at what a mild autumn we’re having, the first hard frost still a week away. His eyes won’t go wide at the beauty of Wyoming the way they did when he was young. A son of Wyoming, proud to call this place home. We can’t change that.
But the next five years are unwritten. We decide what happens in them. If you love Wyoming, let’s work together to make them count. Let’s be a people who fight hard for what we love, a people too proud, too stubborn and too strong to fall for the lie that we don’t deserve equality.
We can change what happens next. We can be part of writing the story of the next five years. We’ve learned that waiting for others to do the right thing doesn’t work. We must pick up the pen of history and write through our words and our works. We must honor Matthew and all those who’ve come before us and all the many yet to come by crossing the finish line and ensuring in law that hate has no place in this great state.