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.

Opinion

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.

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. Two of the horses that draw the authoritarian chariot are ignorance and shame. The ” don’t say gay bill” feeds both of them. First, keep the information that might help kids who feel different out of their hands. Second, make sure they are ashamed because they keep getting thumped with a Bible and told that they’re evil, thus they will stay quiet and compliant. and not rock the boat.

  2. It all gets pretty complicated doesn’t it.
    Kerry just needs to run his own school as a template and show us how it’s done.

  3. Many of these bills come from the DC lobbyists that are pumping out right wing crap that the right wingers here grab onto. Our so-called legislators couldn’t come up with an original idea if there lives depended on it.

  4. This is the same legislature that is supposedly concerned about Wyoming’s teacher shortage and how to address it. Perhaps they should consider that vilifying and threatening teachers and other educators might be part of the problem.

  5. The “Freedom Caucus” is a joke. I prefer to call them the American Taliban as that is exactly what they are. Leave people alone. Live by the standards that Wyoming was once known for. Equality State, non interference, freedom to be who you are. No one is indoctrinating anyone and reality of our current culture and social norms (meaning normal) is something all of us participate in by just being human. Religious zealots trying to control the entire population of Wyoming and this country need to be removed from office and the restoration of the division of church and state should be the absolute goal of the legislative process.
    The American Taliban has no business in the processes of government. They need to be removed from the offices and sent packing. The infringement of the rights of others is not appropriate or Constitutional.

  6. the 2023 legislature has one job: FIX THE PROPERTY TAX PROBLEM!!! Quit making more laws and fix an issue that’s RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU!!!

  7. They import the worst of the worst because it’s easier than being innovative or looking at the real problems that affect our lives here in Wyoming.

  8. Both the Wyoming and Florida laws are actually called “Parental Rights in Education” and not the fabricated name used by Special Interest activists, lobbyists, and their media.

    https://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2022/1557

    If you actually read both laws instead of allowing yourself to be controlled by language designed to manipulate you, you’ll see both laws simply restore parental rights that have been ignored by a system that operates in secrecy, and holds participants accountable with a defined legal process. Anyone who seeks knowledge outside the corporate media narratives knows that parents across the country have been courageous to stand up to a government that treats them as “terrorists” for simply exercising their 1st Amendment rights and protecting their children. Wyoming voters rejected establishment candidates for a reason. Marxism only succeeds in the darkness of indoctrination and subjugation, and it dies in the light of truth.

  9. In the realm of Natural Law there are either two biological sexes serving as components for assured reproduction (or sometimes just one) . After 650 million years of evolution from the Cambrian Era when life appeared above the surfline, it works splendidly to this day.
    Except hardcore Republican conservatives want nothing more elaborate than the mating cycle of Horseshoe Crabs to prevail, again to this day , and all the tomorrows for the forseeable .

    Unfortunately for them, we are genus Homo and species sapiens, the latter being an old term for ” smart” , wise, intelligent , freethinking , adaptive…ad infinitum. We upright primates did not evolve just physiologically, we have also transformed intellectually, vastly so. Especially in the last two millennia.
    We now know that there are several Gender Identities overlaid on the biological sexes. They have been there all along, actually , witnessed since before the primates started writing things down. Think of the biological sexes as the hardware, and the gender identity the operating system software . For most of recorded history the hardware was fixed and the operating system was unitary or binary . But as we intellectually evolved, the other gender identities were slowly revealed. Not created or imagined or conjured —revealed. Who among us anywhere does not know an individual whose gender and sexuality are fluid ? Be honest.
    Nobody can say with a straight face there are just two sexes and only two possible gender identities hardwired to them . Nobody …

    … except the delusional heretofore mentioned hardcore conservative Republicans and a few of their unaligned ilk , who are in extreme terminal DENIAL. And here in Wyoming , presently , trying their darndest to legislate us all the way back to the Cambrian era, passing thru the Dark Ages and accelerating rearwards… regressively

    There is hope. The basic forces of Natural Law eventually prevail and render those regressives extinct. That cannot happen soon enough . Like next week in Cheyenne.

  10. Really, do we need to copy every stupid law that comes down the interstate. Don’t say copycat whether gay or not.

  11. Let kids be kids. A child in the first few grades doesn’t have the slightest clue who or what they want to be as an adult. No one should talk to them about sexual matters at that age, especially teachers.

  12. Yes, why do legislators want to copy other states laws, especially when it’s either not an issue in Wyoming and/or the majority of resident aren’t asking for it. I’ve heard the justification: “We’re only one of the few states that doesn’t have this law. Or, nearby states are doing this.” And on and on. This was true with the Ranked Choice Voting Bill and has been the constant justification for legal cannabis. A majority of these bills are written by lobbyists or special interest groups. Solutions looking for problems. So, would you jump off the bridge just because everyone else does? Not again. lol

  13. Instead of seeking to understand a student’s personal struggles with a condition that might lead them to be gay, these legislators prefer to make them a pariah among their childhood peers. So rather than being all inclusive and supportive for our all children, maybe they will put more funds into suicide prevention for the emotionally distraught. Keep your personal beliefs in your own closet legislators and let people be free to live the life they chose.

  14. I suggest legislators be required to disclose the authorship of bills they bring to Wyoming. It should be clear when interest groups convince our lawmakers to impose their agendas on Wyoming people. It might help their colleagues to critique those bills.

  15. Kerry,
    Because it’s easier to use someone else’s crappy bill, then to think for ourselves, and write some thing thoughtful, that actually shows they care about the citizens of Wyoming