When I told my friends I was going to a Pride in Laramie, Wyoming, their initial reaction was unanimous: Queer horror. I doubt any of us would have ever heard of Laramie had the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard never taken place there. Queer people are murdered every year, but there is something about the historical position and brutality of Matthew’s murder that clings in our collective Queer memory. The struggle for Queer acceptance took a turn in the late nineties. Twenty-five years later, Laramie remains “the place Matthew Shepard was killed.” I was curious to see how his specter would participate in a Pride there.
Minneapolis to Wyoming is a long drive, almost thirteen hours according to Google Maps. I could not predict how long Cookie and I would take. I was hoping to drive around ten to twelve hours and see if I could find a spot to land for the night. I stopped for gas at the Corn Palace after five hours, a surprisingly robust tourist destination and seed-art festooned truck stop in the southeastern quadrant of South Dakota. I assumed I would encounter some suitable parking lot in the remaining 560 miles to Laramie.
After nearly fifteen hours with nary a tree, I was pulling into a hotel parking lot in Cheyenne, a mere fifty miles from my morning destination. I managed to make myself a quesadilla before snuggling in between a semi and a mud puddle to pass out.
It was a quick and pleasant drive over a mountain pass after my required coffee and Spelling Bee. Laramie is a charming, Western mountain town with old brick storefronts and fluffy, cartoon clouds overhead. It’s the home of Wyoming’s only public university. Their mascot is the cowpoke. There are “Poke Pride” references everywhere which delighted my inner 12-year-old boy, especially since I came all this way for something gay.
I arrived in time for the morning assembly and sidewalk chalking before the Pride March. It took place in a small outdoor seating area between rail tracks and an indie coffee/tap house at the Western end of a main commercial corridor. There were a dozen youth making use of chalk provisions and some grown-ups in matching t-shirts handing out donuts. By the time we were set to march, about fifty people had assembled.
After taking some pictures of the art and checking out the pedestrian bridge over the train tracks, I introduced myself to some of the organizers. They remembered the email I’d sent letting them know I was coming and enthusiastically agreed to chat with me after the march. There were some speeches, then a proclamation from Laramie’s vice-mayor, declaring June Pride month.
Everyone kept to the sidewalk and obeyed traffic lights on our five-block Pride March down Grand Ave to the Albany County Courthouse. There were multiple honks of encouragement from passing cars and only one woman made a bit of a stink-face when she had trouble navigating through crowd into an antique shop. There were volunteers as legal observers/security/traffic patrol at every light.
When we returned to our starting point, I asked one of the organizers if the coffee shop had good breakfast. The woman told me the breakfast burritos two blocks over were better and offered to buy me one. This gracious person turned out to be Trey Sherwood, one of seven Democratic representatives (out of 93) in the Wyoming legislature.
We landed at Night Heron Books & Coffeehouse (highly recommend). They had a Pride display and their book club book for the month was Gender Queer. We were joined by two of Trey’s friends, one being the Minority Whip in the Wyoming legislature, Karlee Provenza.
This turned out to be a valuable lesson for me: never leave your camera and notebook in your van. Trey and Karlee proceeded to break down the current political and cultural climate in Wyoming for over an hour, including scandals and conspiracies involving local and state officials, cops, hate groups, and even Karlee. I vaguely remembered that story from its brief twitter saturation.
Trey has a Master’s degree in Public History and leads an economic development board for Downtown Laramie. She is also an organizer for Laramie Pride. Karlee has a Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology and Law. She researches decision making in police use of force cases and has long been an advocate for police reform.
I’m still kicking myself for not retaining a physical record of this fortuitous and delicious encounter. Trey could not have been more gracious. It was a delicious breakfast burrito. Karlee made her confident, confrontational eloquence apparent immediately. Both battle overwhelming odds in the state legislature.
The Republican Wyoming Freedom Caucus attempted to censure Karlee over her Instagram post in recognition of Trans Day of Visibility earlier this year. (See above.) Ultimately, Wyoming’s own cultural affection for the First and Second Amendments prevailed over Republican hypocrisy.
Karlee formally apologized for the distraction her post caused but reiterated her support for “armed self-defense for the LGBTQ community.” Nothing is quite as heart-warming as meeting intelligent, brave strangers standing in the way of your oppression. It was worth the drive just to meet these two.
Wyoming’s state nickname is the “Equality State.” It earned this moniker by becoming the first state in the nation to grant women the right to vote in 1869, fifty-one years before the passage of the 19th Amendment. Apparently, there were some ulterior motives. The men in the sparsely populated frontier territory, at the time, were hoping to generate positive national publicity. More importantly, they hoped to attract more women to their state where men outnumbered women 6 to 1.
The official state motto is still “Equal Rights,” but Wyoming has always been conservative. That’s the tricky part about “rugged” libertarian idealism when you also prefer capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. “Don’t tread on me” seems like all you need until People of Color and the Queers move into the neighborhood.
Wyoming is the least populous state in America. It has roughly the same number of people as Milwaukee. It is the second whitest state after Vermont at almost 93%. It is only slightly behind Montana in leading gun ownership per capita. Its LGBTQ population is estimated at about 3.3%. That’s a lot of wide-open space for white people with guns to intimidate whoever causes them discomfort.
Though a familiar slate of anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in Wyoming legislature this past season, only a bill prohibiting Trans girls and women from participating in sports on teams or in divisions aligning with their gender was signed into law. Wyoming seems to be hesitant to curtail individual liberties, maintaining their motto, but they aren’t in a hurry to legislate against discrimination either.
Wyoming repealed anti-sodomy laws in 1977. They weren’t banned nationally until 2003. That same year, the legislature defined marriage as a union between a male and female. But Wyoming reversed that in 2014, a year before the Obergefell decision. In fact, in the intervening forty-six years, every anti-LGBTQ bill introduced was defeated by appealing to the purported Republican principle of limited government interference in private decisions.
However, repeated efforts to enact hate-crime legislation have failed since Matthew Shepard’s murder. There has also never been a state-wide anti-discrimination law that includes LGBTQ civil rights, except those mandated federally. The Trans sports ban marked a turning point for the “Equality State.” The Republican governor called the bill “draconian,” but let it pass into law without his signature, straddling the divide between right-wing extremists and the rest of his party. The ironically named, far-right Freedom Caucus in the legislature has been infiltrating the more traditional libertarian Republican hoedown in Wyoming and gaining influence since Trump’s election.
After my undocumented, but enlightening brunch, I moseyed on down to Washington Park for Laramie Pridefest.
They had a full day of speakers and performers planned. Tabling was limited to local non-profits, churches, and organizations so I began wandering about in my “Nobody Knows I’m Trans” t-shirt, smiling and introducing myself, hoping somebody would want to talk to me on camera.
I passed this tough-looking guy with a big, black cowboy hat, holding his girlfriend’s hand and wondered if they had just stumbled into this event. I even thought he might be trouble. On my pass back through the crowd, I spotted him again. He’d taken his shirt off and I caught sight of two long, familiar scars on his chest. I smiled at him. He said he liked my shirt. I told him about my project and they both sat beneath a pine tree with me to tell me their story.
Chance and Caitlyn have been together for a few years. They’re saving up to homestead somewhere in the middle of Wyoming in the near future. They didn’t want to say where. Chance is a bartender at the Laramie American Legion. He’s out to his boss, but not the patrons. Caitlyn identifies as Ace.
Chance came out at as Trans at sixteen and started testosterone at eighteen. He’s nearly thirty now. He went to high school on the East Coast but seems comfortable in his cowboy boots and black Stetson. He told me he’s had great luck in finding supportive employers and health care in Laramie, but usually remains stealth to minimize his exposure to violence. “This is still Wyoming,” he said.
I talked to Jake, a Transman from Laramie, who was in high school in the late 90s. Jake was bullied in school after being outed as queer by a friend. After Matthew Shepard was murdered, Jake was threatened with the same fate. He said the teachers did nothing at the time, but he credits the response to Matthew’s murder for significant change in Laramie. It was the first city in Wyoming to pass anti-discrimination ordinances and there are now GSAs in both the middle and high schools.
Jake moved shortly after high school to Virginia then Tennessee. He describes this period as his “psycho-Christian phase.” He went to school for youth ministry and married a man, who turned out to be Bisexual. None of that turned out well. After a messy divorce, he moved back to Laramie where he began his transition and his mom moved back to be supportive of her son.
Antonio Serrano came to Laramie Pridefest to keep people safe. His day job is Advocacy Director of the ACLU Wyoming. He is also the founder and director for Juntos, an immigrant advocacy organization inclusive of intersectional oppressions.
“There’s a lot of neo-Nazis, fascists, white supremacists, those guys around Wyoming…You see in the news how they’re getting stirred up by the rhetoric of politicians. It trickles down to community events like this.” Antonio illuminates for me what should have been an obvious reality about Wyoming and is truly the source of my trepidation about red states in general. Anti-LGBTQ legislation is undeniably harmful to the populations it targets, both practically and psychologically, but the inflammatory rhetoric from elected leaders emboldens extremists to threaten and carry out violence against our community. Wyoming is the perfect model for legislating libertarian ideals while enforcing a conservative social hegemony through extrajudicial intimidation.
Antonio tells me even though many or most Wyomingites may support same-sex marriage or anti-discrimination laws for LGBTQ people, it’s difficult to organize a substantial resistance to potential legislation affecting any marginalized population. There are just not enough people who feel strongly enough to show up. “You’ll talk to five organizers on one issue and then you go to another issue, and it’s the same five organizers…I’m a firm believer in spending time in community…trying to build up that strength, that solidarity, little by little.”
When I ask if he’s got anything to say to blue states, “Red states are the battleground. We are the front line…This is where things are going to go bad first. Don’t forget about people like us, fighting in some of the most dangerous places. It’s the Wild West. No joke.”
Everything began winding down in late afternoon. There were no counter-demonstrations as a few had feared. Patriot Front is active in Cheyenne, but they didn’t make the drive to kill any Queer joy that day. Maybe there was a sale on khaki cargo pants at the fancy fascist outlet mall. People started taking down their tents. A volunteer security guard pulled me aside. I’d noticed him noticing me earlier.
He wanted to know if I’d been to the Matthew Shepard Memorial yet. He told me how close it was and the best way to get there with all the construction on campus. He said the vigil was the night before so there should be fresh offerings on it. I’d planned on going before I left, but there was something about his investment in my seeing it that gave my pilgrimage weight. I thanked him and he thanked me for driving all way from Minneapolis. I guess news gets around in a small town.
I parked a few blocks away at the main entrance to the University campus. He’d told me to park on the other side, but I couldn’t imagine the walk around the construction fences could be that arduous. I ended up walking almost all the way to where he told me to park.
I don’t know what I was expecting. I made my way to the other side of an endless construction fence guarding some underground maintenance work and found a bench.
Withered, weathered, and haphazard offerings left at a memorial possess their own specific alchemy. They honor a memory and stranger’s grief. Because Matthew was Queer and I’m Queer and he was murdered and I’m still here, this memorial and these offerings assume my solidarity and a bigot’s shame. His murder is part of my history because it represents a possible Queer fate. Matthew was at Pride all day. I had to find him to say goodbye.
I was back on the road with a few hours of daylight left. I went over the mountain pass and through Cheyenne, into the infinite plains of Nebraska. I decided to take the road more traveled on the way home and was rewarded with a Love’s Truckstop off the interstate just as the sun was setting.
Upon my return home, I reached out to a librarian I’d met at Pride but didn’t get a chance to speak to. Eli is an outreach librarian in Laramie. They identify and overcome barriers to access for the public library there. They spoke to me about librarians in Wyoming organizing to combat book-banning efforts.
Eli told me there wasn’t much of a campaign in Laramie to ban certain books. They recalled one parent upset over a board book for babies that depicted possible same-sex coupling in the animal kingdom. They said Gillette, in northeast Wyoming, has had a “horrific experience” with book challenges.
Gillette experienced a population boom in the early 2000s with a sudden expansion of its fossil fuel industries, predominantly coal. The recent decline in coal use nationwide has led to an economic downturn in the area. The loss of easy money left many sad, mediocre white men vulnerable to the rhetoric of national book-banning organizers. Why deal with your frustration due to your own inadequacy when you can take it out on a vulnerable minority: a tale as old as time.
Gillette was targeted by Mass Resistance, a seasoned, well-funded, national anti-LGBTQ organization. Their sole function seems to be to distill the current national moral panic into an especially toxic, concentrated, local conservative emergency. They motivate disgruntled conservatives off their couches into Library Board meetings. They even provide flyers and talking points.
In Gillette, they succeeded in forcing the Campbell County Public Library to sever association with the Public Library System and The American Library Association which had offered them some protection from censorship. Prior to July 2021, no one from the public ever came to library board meetings. They also succeeded in getting the former board chair to resign and they’ve gotten little interest from people willing to run for the position.
I also asked Eli about their experience in Wyoming and Laramie, specifically as I had with everyone I’d talked to. They liked Laramie. They liked how beautiful Wyoming is. They experienced some antagonism when they were younger and told me sometimes small-town stereotypes are true. They graduated from the University of Wyoming and had gone to the Matthew Shepard Symposium, an annual social justice conference there, a couple times. Eli was a small child when Matthew was killed.
“I remember deciding I didn’t want to be the bearer of that memory anymore. I carried so much inherited history and trauma as a visibly black person. I am less visibly Trans or gender non-conforming. I chose not to center Matthew Shepard’s legacy, death, the after-effects as part of my Queer experience.”
There were many reasons Matthew Shepard’s murder got the national attention it did. The preceding decade and a half of sustained Queer activism pushing for AIDS research funding and basic human empathy had earned some legitimacy from mainstream American culture by 1998. Someone started making a documentary almost immediately. Matthew’s parents, who had never been activists, became prolific advocates for LGBTQ rights. And Matthew was a sweet-looking, young, blond, white boy.
I’m grateful Eli brought up race. There are complications surrounding Matthew’s continued presence in the American Queer consciousness. Dozens of Queers are murdered every year. The overwhelming majority being Trans Women of Color. Overlooking intersecting oppressions, especially race and class, is also part of our collective Queer struggle. Sylvia Rivera preached about it at the first Pride.
I’d thought about this before I left but didn’t know how or when to address it in an article about Queer solidarity. The end of the 90s also marked a pivot away from more radical Queer activism toward assimilation and integration into dominant society. Matthew’s murder wasn’t directly responsible for that strategy direction, but his was a normatively empathetic face as a symbol of our oppression. The world got a little safer for handsome white gay boys and remains as dangerous as it ever was for gender non-conforming folks, particularly if they’re Black or Brown.
I also had the pleasure of connecting with Sara Burlingame, executive director for Wyoming Equality. Her father mapped small towns throughout the inter-mountain West. She told me about growing up in “single-wide” mobile homes in remote locations. She organized her first pro-choice rally at fifteen in the Mojave Desert in Southern California. She graduated high school early and went overseas to the UK where she found her first girlfriend.
Upon her return to the US, she moved to Cheyenne and volunteered for United Gays and Lesbians of Wyoming which became Wyoming Equality. Sara reiterated the reality of the top-down nature of the national anti-LGBTQ siege red states are currently contending with. She told me anti-Trans and CRT legislation was focus group tested before experimental bills were disseminated to red states that had little progressive organizing infrastructure. This began around 2016 with the Trans bathroom ban in North Carolina.
When I asked about her to speculate on the goals of this strain of conservative Republicans, she said they want to both inflict damage on real people, but they’ve also realized it’s a winning political message. It organizes and energizes extremist impulses. That strengthens their overall movement on many levels. It creates ideological borders for more libertarian Republican legislators in Wyoming. The Freedom Caucus, which is also a nationally organized and funded activist arm, is able to oust more traditional Cowpokes if they err on the side of individual liberty.
She says she used to worry less about militia groups because they used to fight with each other. Now they see themselves as vigilante enforcers of this Nationalist political ideology and they’ve found ways to work together and recruit. The publicity they get from their reactionary or violent actions animates authoritarian politicians, who then passively or stridently endorse their tactics.
Wyoming Equality is part of the Equality Federation, an affiliation of state-based policy activists who strive to identify and develop leadership and provide support to organizers in individual states who work to defeat anti-LGBTQ attacks. Wyoming is part of a red state coalition within that network. I wonder if they would let me sit in on meetings. Sara is a bottomless fount of detailed Queer updates from all my potential destinations.
She told me, “In Wyoming, I worry we don’t have time. Our fight is ceaseless. We do it because we love Wyoming uniquely. This is our home, and I really do believe it has all the ingredients to be the best place on earth.”
Wyoming is beautiful. Could we take it over? Imagine coordinating 500,000 Queers. We’d be late. I worry about the vague timeframe she mentions. I’ve felt this urgency before. This project is slowly revealing the larger structure of the fight we’re in, whether we know it or not. I don’t think either side knows exactly where we’re heading.
If you’d like more information or are interested in resource sharing or solidarity work, here are some links to your Queer community in Wyoming:
Laramie Pridefest: https://www.laramiepridefest.com/donate
ACLU Wyoming: https://www.aclu-wy.org/
Wyoming Equality: https://www.wyomingequality.org/