Wyoming residents, forever an independent bunch, have long resented outside influence. You’ve seen the bumper stickers: “Don’t California my Wyoming” and “Welcome to Wyoming. We don’t care how you did it back home.” The sentiment is even expressed by people who exported themselves here.
So, why do many state legislators feel compelled to bring new laws to Wyoming that have already made other states the object of ridicule and lawsuits?
The latest example is a restrictive educational law in Florida that’s been passed in similar forms by more than a dozen states, and many state legislatures are debating the idea. Wyoming Sen. Dan Dockstader (R-Afton) copied the name of Florida’s law — the Parental Rights in Education Act — but it’s become more popularly known by opponents everywhere as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
The latter description fits. All of these bills restrict teachers in kindergarten through third grade from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity, while talks in older grades must be “age appropriate.” At last Friday’s Senate Education Committee hearing, Wyoming Equality Director Sara Burlingame noted every person has a sexual orientation and gender identity. So take Wyoming’s version of the bill at its word and relationships — heterosexual or otherwise — would be a forbidden classroom topic.
Teachers, take those family photos off your desk and ditch any lessons that prompt students to talk about their families. Yet, however imprecisely worded, I assure you the bill’s intent is not to censor all talk of gender and sexuality. It’s meant to silence LBGTQ+ kids and families.
Nevertheless, the committee voted 4-1 in favor of Senate File 117 – Parental rights in education, sending it to the full Senate for debate. With the current far-right composition of the Legislature, it has a good chance of passing unless public pressure stops its momentum.
Where is demand for this measure coming from? Certainly not the Wyoming people. Dockstader, former Senate president, told the Jackson Hole Daily not a single constituent or organization asked him to draft the bill. He said it came from the national conversation about parental rights.
It reminds me of another controversial bill, last year’s Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, sponsored by Sen. Wendy Schuler (R-Evanston), to ban transgender athletes from competing in girls’ sports. Schuler told the Senate Education Committee she talked to one Wyoming mother who was upset that her daughter — in another state! — might drop out of sports after being badly defeated in a track event by a transgender student.
Schuler didn’t offer any evidence that unfair competition from trans student athletes is a problem in Wyoming. But spurred by the hysteria over the issue that has seen at least 18 states issue such bans — and, undoubtedly, by the belief that such hysteria was politically valuable — the Wyoming Senate passed her bill 24-5. Thankfully it died when the House wouldn’t introduce it.
The ACLU of Wyoming issued a statement that said Dockstader’s bill censors students’ and teachers’ right to free speech.
“It is always appropriate for kids to talk about themselves, their experiences and their families,” said Antonio Serrano, the ACLU chapter’s advocacy director. “These are not taboo subjects, but banning them makes them seem so.”
Wyoming Education Association President Grady Hutcherson said legislators should consider the unintended consequences of “Don’t Say Gay” laws. He asked if Dockstader’s bill would make it illegal for a teacher to assign a book that includes an LGBTQ+ character? Or a class speech asking students with two moms or two dads to talk about their families?
Senate File 117 would require school personnel to report to parents or guardians if there is a change to a student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being and a school’s ability to provide a safe and supportive learning environment, with one exception.
Schools would not have to disclose such information “if a reasonably prudent person would believe that disclosure would result in abuse.” But teachers certainly do not know everything that’s going on at home, including whether a child might be subject to abuse, neglect or abandonment if a school discloses information about a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
The bill’s ambiguity puts educators in a terrible position and sets school districts up to face costly litigation. Lawmakers need to know that’s not just a hypothetical liability: Florida is already facing a lawsuit challenging its law’s constitutionality.
Perhaps Florida’s educational funding system has buckets of money to spend defending the religious right’s agenda in court, but Wyoming doesn’t. So why take risks on vaguely written laws that address non-existent problems merely to score political points?
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ 2024 presidential aspiration is largely seen as the reason he’s latched onto the issue. It stirs up the radical base that’s most likely to vote in a Republican primary. But Florida isn’t the first state to ban schools from talking about sexual orientation. Oklahoma did it in 1987, in an AIDS sex education law that banned teaching about homosexuality.
Nine states passed similar laws, but fortunately Wyoming didn’t join them.
Some states wanted teachers to talk about homosexuals, but only in a negative light. Beginning in 1992, Alabama’s education code said teachers must emphasize “in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.”
If I could ask one question of all Wyoming lawmakers who plan to follow the extreme-right Republican pack and vote for Dockstader’s bill, it would be, “Why do you think LGBTQ+ students pose such a threat to you and your constituents?”
In a state like Wyoming that supposedly values its live-and-let-live attitude and keeping the government out of our lives, why does someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity matter?
I know it sends some legislators into a frenzy. I’ve watched them barely contain their emotions debating what bathroom a transgender person can use, or whose marriage the state will recognize.
Many people crowded Wyoming school board and library board meetings to demand all LGBTQ+ related books be taken off the shelves. Several candidates for public office based their campaigns on the issue, including Rep. Jeanette Ward, a Republican freshman representing Casper’s House District 57 who calls the books “pornographic.” But she failed to get the ban she sought for two publications at Kelly Walsh High School’s library.
Ward is sponsoring House Bill 87 – Crimes of obscenity-revisions, which I prefer to more accurately call the “Send Your Librarian to Jail Act.” It repeals exemptions from obscenity statutes for employees of schools, libraries, museums and higher education institutions using “explicit” materials.
It is a misdemeanor to promote obscenity to children and adults, with a possible penalty of a year in jail and fines in cases involving minor victims up to $6,000 for each violation, and adult victims up to $1,000.
I refuse to believe Wyomingites want librarians and teachers sent to jail based on the objections of some religious zealots.
Ward’s bill also adds “cartoons and drawings” to the state’s definition of child pornography. Of course the two books Ward unsuccessfully challenged in Casper, “Gender Queer” and “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves,” feature cartoons and other illustrations.
In her campaign announcement, Ward described herself as a “political refugee from fascist Illinois.” A school board member before losing an Illinois state Senate race in 2020, Ward said she “defended parental rights against the transgender mob.”
Illinois’ gain is our loss, but Wyoming doesn’t have to buy what Ward is selling.