By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
State Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, has her name attached to some notable firsts in Wyoming political history.
She’s the first openly gay faculty member at the University of Wyoming, first openly gay legislator, and now both entities are about to lose her services.
Connolly chose not to run for reelection this year and is retiring from the University of Wyoming this month. Her departure signals an end to an era in Wyoming, an era defined by newfound rights for the LGBTQ community.
‘I Have Always Been In The Minority’
If there has been one consistent feature about her career, it’s Connolly’s refusal to be anyone but herself or capitulate on her values.
From the moment she got in the Legislature in 2009 through now 2022, Connolly has been a super minority member within the body – as a Democrat, and for identifying as a lesbian.
“I’m in the minority, I have always been in the minority,” she said, her New York accent slipping in like she’s talking around vowels. “For me to be successful in terms of policy issues, I need to work across the aisle.”
Navigating The ‘Equality State’
These efforts were not without resistance in Wyoming.
With her 6-year-old son in tow, Connolly came west to Wyoming in 1992 to take a job as a professor within the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at UW. She quickly fell in love with the state for its unparalleled beauty and recreation.
But she also was well-aware of the conservative political climate, feeling uncomfortable about holding hands with her then-partner unless she went south to Boulder, Colorado.
She was in Laramie in 1998 when Matthew Shepard, a gay student, was brutally murdered.
“It impacted me and my family in profound ways,” she said.
According to the Casper Star Tribune, Connolly left a faculty meeting to attend the arraignment of Shepard’s two killers. She was quoted frequently in the weeks and years that followed the event in the media, and is even a character in “The Laramie Project,” a play about Shepard’s death.
Connolly said the experience inspired her to establish a queer studies minor at the University of Wyoming, a program that still exists today.
“Bold, unapologetic and charming, compassionate beyond belief, she gave her heart and soul to our great state,” said Sara Burlingame, executive director of Wyoming Equality and a former legislator. “Queer people knew that we had a champion, and every rancher, businessperson, teacher and parent knew they had a friend in the Legislature.”
Connolly has never shied away from her identity in Wyoming.
She remembers being the first “out” faculty member at UW and the backlash she received, even from members of her own community. She said that in 1997, three co-workers left notes in her mailbox accusing Connolly of wanting to get tenure because she is openly gay.
One gay co-worker told her they cared too much about their career to be “out” like she was. Another co-worker called her when she attempted to hold a potluck for the school’s LGBTQ faculty, warning her that “this is not safe for you to do.”
She also received backlash from a particular department head when attempting to get the word out about the potluck. That person told her “he doesn’t hate people of other races” but Connolly chose “a despicable lifestyle” he could not support.
She didn’t let any of this pushback dissuade her, staying very involved in Laramie’s LGBTQ community over the years and rising through the faculty ranks.
In 2008, Connolly decided to run for the Wyoming Legislature.
At The Capitol
“I learned that really quickly (that) the letter behind your name didn’t make as much difference as the good idea, the work and the working relationships,” Connolly said.
With Connolly’s departure and Rep. Chad Banks, D-Rock Springs, losing his reelection bid this fall, there is only one openly gay member remaining in the Legislature. When Connolly joined the Legislature, Democrats were a super minority, but had 18 House members. This year next session they will only have five.
Connolly has had many, if not most of her bills thwarted throughout the years, facing an uphill battle against the state’s overwhelming conservative majority.
Medicaid expansion, the gender wage gap, legalization of domestic partnerships, hate crime legislation – the list of rejections is long. But Connolly, ever the optimist, prefers to focus on the issues she brought to people’s attention, and the bills that did pass.
One of her proudest accomplishments was getting anti-trafficking legislation passed clarifying that only traffickers, not their victims, could be found guilty of this activity. She also passed legislation ensuring that minors who were found guilty of “sexting” would not be charged with possession or delivery of child pornography, a serious felony.
“So, we don’t have 15-, 16-year-olds being charged with things that put them on the sex offender list for life,” she said.
Found Common Ground
Connolly is passionate about worker’s rights, fighting to bring awareness to the gender wage gap and helping pass legislation that allows employers to keep workers during the pandemic and maintain their employer rating.
Another bill obligated the Department of Workforce Services to provide insurance information for workers who are covered in self-insured companies.
She learned quickly that if she wanted to get anything done at the Capitol, she would have to work across the aisle.
“In Wyoming, it’s the relationships you make all over, geographically as well as politically,” she said. “People around the country are kind of amazed that I do call friends from the opposite end of the political spectrum.”
And Connolly did that, finding a middle ground with many Republican legislators. One of the most unexpected alliances she made was with conservative stalwart Marti Halverson.
The two successfully collaborated on a bill requiring the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services to redo a gender wage gap study.
“People found it so charming,” Connolly said with a laugh. “If this was something the two of us could agree on, the entire body must agree on it.”
They also both agreed on abolishing the death penalty.
“Even with people I disagree with on some fundamental issues, there is lots we can often agree on and work for the betterment of the state,” she said.
Connolly found her work on committees was where she could instigate the biggest influence on legislation.
During her time in the Legislature, she served on the Judiciary, Revenue, Appropriations, Education, Travel, Recreation, wildlife and Cultural Resources committees and Management Council.
“Especially as a minority member, some of the best work we can do is on our committees,” she said.
She has spent the most time on Education, where she has been an advocate for the Wyoming Tomorrow Scholarship Program and state-supported early childhood education, an issue she believes she has brought to the forefront.
“We have a great education system, but we always want it to be better, that’s one way we can make it better,” she said.
Connolly believes the Legislature has become more partisan during her time there and distracted by national topics and debates.
She said this was a noticeable departure from the Legislature she first joined, where “everyone had a seat at the table.”
“Early on, we wanted to do what was best for Wyoming and best for Wyomingites,” she said. “We really tried to look at things from a Wyoming perspective.”
She cites the example of discussions on Medicaid expansion about a decade ago. Connolly said even opponents of expansion saw a need for it but differed on whether the federal government or state should manage the program.
She believes Medicaid expansion has become more a philosophical matter for some legislators.
“Now, I think there are members of the Wyoming Republican Party who will just say ‘no,’” she said. “We don’t want Wyoming, we don’t want the feds, we’re not going to pay attention to the need.”
Although Connolly said she hasn’t directly experienced any effects of the deteriorating decorum personally, she has noticed it impacting others.
A firm believer in nonpartisan politics, she expressed disappointment that many of the new, hardline conservative legislators don’t seem to espouse this same value.
“They did stick together and that made a difference,” she said.
What Connolly has achieved for the LGBTQ community is hard to quantify. How do you put a value on decades of lobbying and legislating?
“The loss of Minority Leader Cathy Connolly is seismic,” said Burlingame. “I mean it with the full weight of enormous proportion, but also in the sense that the Earth was changed by her presence.”
One marker could be the state’s support for same-sex marriage. A September poll from the Human Rights Campaign found that 58% of Wyoming residents support a national right to same-sex marriage, a remarkable statistic considering the state’s supermajority Republican population.
In an unexpected move, Wyoming’s U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis, one of the most conservative legislators in Congress, recently stood by her belief in the Constitutional right of same-sex marriage by voting to support the Respect for Marriage Act.
Connolly believes the Legislature needs to catch up to the views of the state.
“The recognition is there, but we need the policy to follow,” she said.
Although the tide has slowly been moving in support of her community over the last decade, Connolly has no illusions that challenges and pushback won’t exist in the future.
As examples, she mentioned recently proposed bills like Evanston Republican Sen. Wendy Schuler’s legislation forbidding transgender students from participating in girls sports, and Casper Republican Sen. Charles Scott’s legislation that would make gender-related medical procedures performed on minors child abuse as examples.
“These cause harm,” she said. “With the rhetoric that we’re hearing right now, those (facts) are not making a difference and we have the very very large likelihood of serious harm that will happen.”
Proliferation Of ‘Anti’ Bills
When Connolly first started in the Legislature, she said “anti” bills like these were much rarer.
“We did have them, but they failed,” she said. “Now, I’m not so sure about it.”
She also said Republicans in those days were much more averse to government regulation. Now, with the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus holding a near 50% membership in the Republican Party, bills like these have a greater chance than ever.
Connolly will be moving back to her native upstate New York in the coming week to be closer to lifelong friends and her son.
“The LGBTQ community of Wyoming will still have her to call on, she’s just made the very understandable choice to retire in a state where her civil rights are acknowledged,” Burlingame said. “We wish her nothing but gratitude.”
She won’t rule out the possibility of getting back into politics in her new old home.
If there’s one certain about her future, it’s that Connolly will continue to stay involved and let her voice be heard.
“I won’t rule out anything,” she said.