To date, most of the reaction to the recent outrageous, homophobic comments of a Wyoming state senator has focused on politics.
We need to concern ourselves as well with the impact on LGBTQ students who heard Sen. Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne) compare homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality, according to Dr. Glenda Russell.
Russell is a psychotherapist in Boulder, Colorado, who has worked extensively with LGBTQ youth. She has also trained volunteers for an anti-bullying program, the Safe Schools Initiative in that city.
She was not in Cheyenne on Feb. 1, when Gay-Straight Alliance students visited the temporary Capitol in the Jonah Business Center to lobby for an anti-discrimination bill protecting the employment rights of LGBTQ individuals. The measure ultimately wasn’t even heard by the House.
When a student asked Hutchings about the issue, the students and their adviser said she asked a series of “what if” questions about what protections she should be entitled to “if my sexual orientation was to have” sex with all the male and female members of the Senate, plus their children and dogs. One would be hard-pressed to respond in a more crude, misinformed way than Hutchings chose.
Russell read Hutchings’ comments and noted that the LGBTQ students and their straight friends may experience a range of reactions, including “possibly shock, sadness, anger, the expectation of more general rejection and increased negative feelings about their sexual or gender minority status.”
“Exactly what the nature and severity of the concerns are depends on many factors,” Russell explained. “It certainly does not help matters if the person who is said to have made discouraging comments is viewed as a civic leader, one who literally is in a position to exert power over these students’ lives.”
While Hutchings seems confused about what “sexual orientation” is, Russell said it’s not difficult to understand.
“Sexual orientation refers to an enduring pattern of romantic and sexual attraction that a person has,” Russell said. “It has nothing whatsoever to do with pedophilia and nothing to do with bestiality. These are facts established by researchers using many methodologies over decades.”
Russell said we rarely think of heterosexuals only in terms of their sexual behavior.
“But it is common for people to think of gay, lesbian and bisexual — and even transgender — individuals in a way that highlights the sexual behavior,” she said. “This reduces LGBT people to sexual beings while ignoring all sorts of other aspects of their lives.”
On a positive note, Russell said the students and faculty adviser may use an incident like this to band together and support one another. “It is critically important that they receive support from others in writing a narrative that fits their own experience of their lives,” she said.
The students’ response to Hutchings’ diatribe and the political uproar that followed has been impressive. When one of the teens talked to WyoFile reporter Andrew Graham, she said while other legislators disagreed with the students’ support of the bill, their discussions were all civil.
The student said she was “grateful for the insight and experience into how our government works and the way we make laws.” She didn’t necessarily want Hutchings to lose her job — though she believed it would be “beneficial because the way she treated us was not OK.”
But the student wasn’t seeking retribution in any way. “I don’t want to wish anyone anything bad,” she said.
It’s been nearly three weeks since Hutchings’ comments — more than enough time for Senate leadership to investigate the students’ claims and Hutchings’ denial and to take action.
There’s no mistaking what she said. Though in a written release Hutchings denied having compared homosexuality to pedophilia or bestiality, her account of the exchange — “I made an attempt to best engage several of them by asking four rhetorical questions.” — sounds an awful lot like what the students reported. She was clearly heard by 10 students and their faculty advisor. The fact Senate leadership has failed to publicly censure her is appalling.
Hutchings and two other senators — Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) and Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) — were involved in what I consider a major precursor to this latest incident. The trio demanded the Legislative Management Council strip sexual orientation and gender identity from the classes protected from discrimination in its policy for legislators, staff and the public.
In fact, the leadership went further and removed all explicitly protected classes weakening protections from discrimination based on race, religion, disability, or in any other trait.
The Management Council’s action showed the majority of its members either agreed with the trio, were too weak to say no to bigotry, or both.
How have previous legislators treated LGBTQ constituents? To find out I contacted Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, for his insight. We have been friends for more than 25 years, ever since we were both reporters at the Casper Star-Tribune. [Full disclosure: Marsden is also married to WyoFile operations manager Guy Padgett.]
After Shepard’s murder in Laramie, Marsden wrote a courageous column about his personal experiences as a gay man in Wyoming. He called on Wyomingites to “ … recover our heritage of love and cast off the slavery that hatred subjects us to.” It remains one of the finest columns I have ever read.
Marsden is upset that Hutchings insisted on conflating sexual orientation with the criminal acts of pedophilia and bestiality.
“This has nothing to do with sexual orientation, and I’m sure [Hutchings] knows better than that,” Marsden said. “What she was talking about with the students was a criminal orientation.”
Marsden recalled first visiting the Legislature as a 14-year-old. He has interacted with lawmakers as a reporter, environmental lobbyist and a supporter of LGBTQ rights over the past three decades. He said while legislators have disagreed with him on many occasions — particularly when he was lobbying for bills to recognize same-sex marriage — he can only think of one time when he was treated in a hostile manner.
Does he think the Legislature will ever pass an LGBTQ anti-discrimination law? Marsden said it will take some time for a new generation with different views than the current crop of legislators, but he’s “pretty confident” it will happen eventually.
Hopefully some of the students who heard Hutchings firsthand and others offended by her message will get involved in the political process and be among those who will make changes that have already occurred in more progressive states. Hutchings, in a self-serving statement, said the business community “should be outraged as this will only continue to bring negative and unjustified attention to Wyoming as another untruth is spread across the country.”
The real concern the business community should have was expressed by Marsden, who worries that members of the Gay-Straight Alliance will leave Wyoming, discouraged by the attitudes of people now in power. If they do, they will find that millions of people elsewhere share the belief that people should be free to love whom they choose, without fear of discrimination. If our own LGBTQ youth can’t do that in Wyoming, we should all be upset — and those who make them feel unwelcome should be ashamed.
“We’ll likely lose some very talented young people, who could do a lot for the state,” Marsden said.
That’s the price Wyoming will end up paying for the thoughtless remarks by Hutchings, who instead of apologizing, continues to portray herself as a victim. One thing Hutchings said does make sense: “This situation provides a learning opportunity for us to find better ways to discuss these issues in a respectful manner.”
The students have been respectful throughout this entire matter. They had a right to expect all the adults they lobbied to treat them the same.
Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Casper and can be reached at [email protected]