Wyoming Gay Straight Alliance Students Lobby Against Trans Bills At Capitol
By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
Amid new legislation seeking to address transgender rights in Wyoming, around 50 high school members of the Wyoming Gay Straight Alliance Network (GSA) were at the state Capitol in Cheyenne to meet with state legislators as part of the organization’s biannual Civics Day.
The students say their outlook for the future of the state isn’t bright.
“I would hope that Wyoming would get better because it is ‘The Equality State’ and you want people to stay here,” said Erica Prather, 18, “but a lot of kids argue that they don’t feel comfortable.”
Although the state’s motto comes with the promotion of equality, Prather said Wyoming’s laws and culture don’t always share the same promise.
Fitting into the backdrop of LGBTQ issues in Wyoming will likely always be the 1998 murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.
Prather, who identifies as a lesbian, said she loves the scenic beauty of the state and its rural culture and doesn’t “hate Wyoming for what it is.” But at times she said she feels vulnerable because of her sexual orientation.
“The idea of not being safe in somewhere I live, is just not something I can be a part of,” she said.
Perception & Reality
The status of the LGBTQ community in Wyoming and the rest of the country has changed significantly since Shepard’s death. Homophobic and transphobic incidents have declined, and a much higher percentage of the population has become public about their sexual orientation.
The effects of this movement have also been showcased in the changes to national laws. The right to same-sex marriage was codified into federal law in December, other laws prohibiting homosexual activity have been struck down; and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals can now serve openly in the military.
But there has also been a cyclical pushback from certain states in response to this movement. According to Bloomberg, the number of bills targeting the LGBTQ community is at an all-time high, with Republicans proposing 325 anti-LGBTQ bills in the first quarter of 2022, 130 of which target transgender people specifically. In 2021, 27 of the 268 introduced bills made it into law.
In Wyoming, there are similar laws being crafted. Specifically, there have been three bills drafted in the 2023 Legislature session targeting transgender issues and another four that forbid the teaching of transsexuality in schools, including a local version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
Also, last weekend, the Wyoming Republican Party formally condemned U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis for voting to support the Respect For Marriage Act, which codified same-sex marriage into federal law.
GSA has been running its Civics Day every other year since 2017.
Artemis Langford, a transgender woman, was part of this original class at Civics Day. Now, Langford is a legislative intern for the Wyoming Democratic Party.
“I really feel empowered by the experiences I had there because I can help change things for the better for the state and my community,” Langford said.
The GSA Network was set up by Wyoming Equality to empower LGBTQ and allied students to foster safer and more inclusive environments in their schools.
Civics Day started with a $500 donation from students at a high school in New York City that was performing “The Laramie Project,” a play about Shepard’s murder. The students at the school inquired as to how it was for members of the LGBTQ community in Wyoming in the present day and were shocked at what they found out.
“We said, ‘not great,’” Wyoming Equality Executive Director Sara Burlingame explained. “They were shocked to hear we don’t have any hate crime legislation on the books, and they were all just driven to pass the hat.”
Get To Lobbying
Prather said catching her particular attention in the 2023 session was Senate File 111, a bill brought by state Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, that would make parents of minors who receive transgender surgeries in Wyoming liable for criminal charges of child abuse. She believes by taking this right away, it detracts from Wyoming’s state motto as “The Equality State.”
“I have a lot of trans friends who are able to transition socially but they can’t really go have the surgeries yet because they’re not 18,” Prather said. “I understand waiting until you’re 18, but the idea of not being able to socially transition, get the vocal training or the hormones, and things like that, it just doesn’t seem very fair to me.”
Prather doesn’t believe that if Wyoming passes this law, it will do anything to change the rate these surgeries are performed on minors, as many can easily travel to a neighboring state to have them done. She does support parental consent being required for a minor to receive a transgender surgery.
One aspect of the Wyoming Legislature that separates it from most others in the nation is the approachable nature of the lawmakers, none of which are full-time politicians.
“I think it really just goes to show this is a citizens’ legislature,” Wyoming Equality Safe & Healthy Schools Coordinator Ray Kasckow said. “This is an opportunity for teenagers to have that moment where they share their voice and show that they are the future of our state.”
In addition to the many lawmakers they met throughout the course of the day, the GSA students also got to meet with Wyoming Supreme Court Justice Keith Kautz for around 90 minutes.
Of course it wouldn’t be challenging for these students to get the same messages across through a phone call or email, but by interacting with a legislator in person, Laramie High School senior Molly Ballard believes it can make a real difference.
“I think it’s important to be heard in person, it shows that you care a lot more,” she said.
Mairin Sims, who also goes to Laramie High School, said when conversing in person, making eye contact and conveying certain nuances like voice inflection and a sense of emotional appeal, helps build a much stronger bond with lawmakers.
“You can see my body language, you can see how my face is,” she said. “It gives more depth to the story than just writing an email.”
Langford, a Lander native, became the first openly transgender sorority member at the University of Wyoming in 2022 and was the first openly transgender page at the State Legislature. She said she has no plans to leave the state anytime soon.
“I’m pretty stubborn,” she said with a laugh.
Burlingame said she took a poll of the Civics Day group and asked how many plan to stay in Wyoming after high school. Two of the roughly 50-person group said they plan to stay.
Ballard is attending school in Idaho next year and said Wyoming’s stance on LGBTQ issues played a small factor in her deciding to leave. Sims, a student who identifies as a lesbian, is unsure whether she’s leaving or not.
Prather, a senior at Cheyenne Central High School, who plans to attend Colorado State University. She said the state’s stance on LGBTQ issues “definitely” played into her decision to leave.
“Walking down the streets and even some of my classes, I’m afraid to be who I am,” she said. “In Colorado, I can feel much safer.”
But none of the three are giving up hope for their home state.
“I think this is the biggest opportunity I’ve had to participate in government and feel like I’m having sway over actual votes,” Sims said.