Saturday, February 9, 2013

Even in the Red States, Change is Coming - Wyoming Marriage Equality Report

Wyoming, known as the “Equality State” for first giving women the right to vote, recently inched closer to acknowledging LGBT Equality Rights with proposed legislation to establish Domestic Partnerships, Marriage Equality and ENDA-like Employment Protections. While none of the measures were approved this session, the fact that two made their way out of committee and received significant floor votes has heartened some Equality advocates to believe that, even in the reddest of red states, change is coming.

“Even in the Red States, Change is Coming.”
Unlike the last full legislative gathering in 2010 when rights activists spent the entire session fending off hostile DOMA-style bills, this year activists were able to focus their energies on proactive, pro-rights bills. HB 168 would have established Domestic Partnership Rights & Responsibilities; HB169 proposed to recognize that all couples are entitled to marry; and SB131 would have added “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to Wyoming's anti-discrimination statutes. All three bills were introduced by Rep. Cathy Donnolly (D-Laramie), the only “out” member of the Wyoming Legislature.
Marriage Equality never got out of committee, but Domestic Partnerships made a valiant but unsuccessful showing 25-34 on the House floor and the anti-discrimination protections failed 13-17 in the Senate. Considering the gross ignorance exhibited by some legislators – one warned of the risks of “GRID” and another spouted fantastical statistics about gay & lesbian life expectancy, activists are encouraged that 42% of state legislators supported some measure of equality.

A highlight of the committee hearings came when Sen. Bernadine Craft passionately explained her support for Equality by citing her Baptismal Covenant. Sen. Craft (D-Sweetwater Co.), a cradle Episcopalian from Holy Communion-Rock Springs who is in the holy orders process, said the debate should not be centered in religion. “I should not have to be here representing my faith community…because this shouldn’t be about religion or faith, this should be about the law.”

Craft, who’s beloved as “Bernie” throughout the Diocese of Wyoming, said she was taught from childhood to “seek and serve Christ in every human being, to love my neighbor as myself and to respect the dignity of every human being.” Craft reminded listeners of the multiple biblical definitions of marriage in the Old Testament and stressed that, ultimately, her particular religious views were not an issue here. Rather, she said, “I think this is about human rights. I think this is about human dignity.”

“A highlight of the committee hearings came when Sen. Bernadine Craft passionately explained her support for Equality by citing her Baptismal Covenant.”
Craft closed by saying, “My God says respect every human being. My God says judge not lest ye be judged.”

Supporters watching the hearings and instant messaging on, proudly proclaimed Craft’s membership in The Episcopal Church. It was an unlikely but effective evangelical moment.

The Domestic Partnership bill garnered the support of every Democrat, as well as the few moderate and libertarian-leaning Republicans in the State House. Extremist social conservatives, spouting outdated and offensive views, shocked some of their constituents. Talk of fielding moderate GOP challengers in the 2014 elections began soon after.

Wyoming’s serious consideration of these equality measures garnered media attention from around the country. The legislative campaign was championed by a coalition of diverse Equality advocates in the state, including the Matthew Shepard Foundation, various faith groups, Wyoming Equality, Queer Advocacy Network, PFLAG and others. The coalition was formed during the 2011 Legislative Session when extremist groups such as Wy Watch (funded by Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs) sought to enshrine DOMA in the Wyoming Constitution. Intense, round-the-clock efforts by passionate equality-minded citizens narrowly beat back the goliath discriminatory threat – much to the surprise of both sides. Communication networks established on the fly in 2011 were put back into operation for this year’s session. (Wyoming has a part-time citizen legislature which meets in full session for 40 days every odd year; during even-numbered years only budget matters are considered.)

Debriefings with GOP legislators who voted against domestic partnership and discrimination protections are presently underway in an attempt to find common ground for bills to be introduced in 2015. Some say they need assurance that the bills are not an attempt to “redefine” marriage.

Meanwhile, concurrent to the legislative session, a high school senior in the small Wyoming town of Worland (pop. 5,458) waged a successful campaign for the right to include a small rainbow flag in his senior picture. Matt Jolley, an openly gay teen, launched an online petition campaign after his high school principal told him he could not use his picture of choice in the annual yearbook because it was “political.” Matt immediately turned to to garner support.

Integrity’s Province VI Coordinator alerted a network of LGBT-friendly educators in Wyoming to generate an email & phone campaign to the Washakie County school district superintendent and school board. Thanks to widespread Facebook sharing, Matt’s petition earned nearly 5,000 signatures within 72 hours. With surprisingly little ado, the superintendent said the photo was permissible. Matt was deeply gratified by the support he received, especially from his hometown, his friends and his family. Yet another sign that attitudes, even in uber-conservative Wyoming, are changing more rapidly than many realists might expect.

- Pamela R.W. Kandt

Pamela R.W. Kandt was recently named as Province VI Coordinator.  She has served as a Gay-Straight Alliance mentor to teens in Matthew Shepard's hometown and is a volunteer organizer for pro-LGBT bills in the Wyoming State Legislature. She's also the former director of the Wyoming AIDS Project.

Pamela joined Integrity in 2009 and attended General Convention as a volunteer in 2009 and as a Deputy advocate in 2012. Pamela also serves as a co-convener of the Episcopal Women's Caucus.


Patrick said...

Go Bernie and Matt! People like these two give us hope that tolerance and love will make its way into the darkest corners of our country.

The legislation didn't pass this time but the anti-discrimination law lost the Senate by only 3 votes!

Thanks to both of you!

Patrick said...

Go Bernie and Matt! These two give us all hope that tolerance and equality will make their way even to the darkest corners of our country.

And the anti-discrimination bill lost by only 3 votes in the Senate. We have great hopes for the next legislative session.

Thanks to both of you!