It’s still dangerous to be gay in Wyoming

Anti-gay violence in Wyoming is real, and it deserves a real response.

 

It was a Saturday night in Rock Springs, Wyoming, and 30 or 40 of us were partying in a derelict trailer house on a dead-end road. Suddenly, a queer couple we knew showed up and said a bunch of rednecks had been chasing them down Elk Street.

Sure enough, four pickup trucks pulled up moments later and a bunch of burly guys piled out. The encounter escalated into a full-blown brawl — teenagers rolling around in the muddy snow beating on each other. There were more of us than there were of them, so we were able to whoop them soundly and run them off. Then we celebrated what felt like a righteous victory deep into the night.

This was in 2001, just a few years after Matthew Shepard’s murder had made gruesomely public the anti-gay violence that was taking place throughout Wyoming. Shortly after, I left the state for about 14 years. During that time, it appeared to me that gay rights had made great strides — not least with the incremental support to legalize gay marriage nationwide.

Living in places as different from each other as Buenos Aires, Chicago and New Orleans, I witnessed homophobia now and then, but not nearly as often as I saw jubilant demonstrations of gay pride — or, more frequently, plain old gay normalcy. Among the myriad people who are oppressed in this world, homosexuals seemed to be in pretty good shape, particularly white “cisgendered” men. 

Then I moved back to Wyoming.

Trevor O’Brien couldn’t escape to a friendly trailer house when five young men attacked him one night in December 2015 in Gillette, Wyoming. His mother told the Casper Star-Tribune that O’Brien had responded to the men’s comments about his being gay with a smart remark, so they threw him on the ground and stomped on his groin so hard he had trouble urinating for three days. O’Brien didn’t report the incident, nor did he report the homophobic slurs someone repeatedly carved into his car.

In fact, few people beyond his closest friends and family would have known about any of this had O’Brien not killed himself in a park this March 8. He was 20 years old.

A cross marked the fence where Matthew Shepard was beaten and left to die in 1998. The fence has since been torn down.
Ed Andrieski/AP

It is true that many factors likely contributed to O’Brien’s decision to commit suicide. Likewise, the story of Matthew Shepard’s murder is more complex than it might seem on the surface. Many people in Wyoming, for instance, have gone to great lengths to emphasize that both Shepard and his killers may have been high the night he was tied to a fence and pistol-whipped. But rather than adding nuance to the conversation — perhaps by acknowledging that anti-gay violence is sometimes drug-related, too — this emphasis is meant to silence people who might suggest Wyoming has a problem.

In Laramie, where Shepard was assaulted and where I now live, folks don’t like to talk about him much. A student organizer here told me that even the gay community sometimes shies away from discussing Shepard’s murder because of all the negativity and distortion people have heaped onto it.

But whenever horrifying instances of homophobia come to light, such as the attack on O’Brien — or an assault discussed on public radio last year, in which a Casper, Wyoming, man had his teeth kicked in for cross-dressing — any Wyoming citizen whose eyes aren’t clouded by delusion or prejudice should be able to put the pieces together. Anti-gay violence in Wyoming is real, and it deserves a real response.

Shepard’s memory was invoked in 2009 when the U.S. Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This law, co-named for a black man murdered by white supremacists in Texas, strengthened federal law enforcement’s ability to investigate and prosecute hate crimes, including those committed against people on the basis of their sexual orientation.

Forty-five states have passed similar laws that empower state-level authorities. Wyoming is not one of them. It is time we changed that.

Few of us believe that harsher criminal punishments can cure social ills. Hate-crime bills often include tougher sentencing provisions, but just as meaningful are the signals that enacting such laws send. Passing a hate crime bill in Wyoming would admit to the state’s citizens that hate crimes persist. It would communicate that acknowledgement and honest discussion of the problem are necessary if we want to stop the violence. A bill would also tell those at risk that they are not alone in facing anti-gay violence or abuse. It would let them know that we, as a state, have their backs.

So far, the Legislature’s consistent refusal to pass such a bill has sent a different message to anyone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual in Wyoming: This is the Wild West. Better run to your friends and hope they can protect you, because the rest of us don’t really give a damn. 

Nathan Martin is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a freelance writer in Laramie, Wyoming.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.