Wrong side of history: Wyoming lawmakers roll back discrimination protections

In a move destined for disgust by future generations, the “Equality State” took a giant step backward last week. Legislative leaders gutted the body’s anti-discrimination and sexual harassment policy, and opened the door to rampant mistreatment of anyone who’s not a heterosexual, cisgendered, white male, all in the name of “religious freedom.”

Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) said the Legislative Management Council threw out its updated conduct policy to placate far-right critics and affirm “their right to discriminate” against persons with a sexual orientation or gender identity they don’t approve of.

“That is striking,” Rothfuss said before the council voted 7-6 to replace all specified protected classes — including race, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation and gender identity — with the promise to have “civil discussions” in the Legislature.

It is the latter two classes that GOP Rep. and Senator-elect Cheri Steinmetz of Lingle and other religious conservatives specifically targeted for removal. In February the council unanimously added both classes to the policies that cover conduct by the Legislature and its staff.

Too cowardly to stand-up to the religious extremists among them, but recognizing that singling out the LGBTQ crowd probably wouldn’t pass the sniff test, the panel came up with a Machiavellian solution: Remove ALL protected classes from the policy. Embarrassed by the proverbial bathwater, they chose to throw-out the baby and the rest of the family too.

Steinmetz, as the lead advocate for changing the policy, said “additional protection [for LGBTQ residents] is not equal protection, but a special one.”

I am sick and tired of that erroneous claim. All people have the right to not be bullied, discriminated against, harassed, injured or killed. The murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard two decades ago is the most well-known act violence perpetrated on LGBTQ citizens of Wyoming, but it is far from the only one. Protected classes exist for good reason: They are groups of people whom history has demonstrated need protection from habitual, systematic and institutionalized aggression. 

Steinmetz said the issue is “highly controversial.” It is, but only because of people who believe their faith supersedes their neighbors’ right to be themselves.

Steinmetz’s attorney, Herb Doby of Torrington, was incorrect when he maintained in an absurdly authoritative manner that an individual’s sexual orientation and gender identity are not in any way classes protected by the federal government.

Sen. John Hastert (D-Green River) pointed out that the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission considers both to be included in the protections against discrimination and harassment based on sex.

Rep. Nathan Winters (R-Thermopolis), who will not be returning to the Legislature after his loss in the GOP primary for state auditor, accused supporters of the anti-discrimination policy of “weaponizing” the Legislature’s rules of conduct especially against “people of faith.”

It never ceases to amaze me when folks trot out that bit of rhetorical sleight of hand with a straight face.

He said leaving the policy intact would damage the First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and religion.

Two others made statements that I couldn’t believe I was hearing. Senator-elect Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne) said one’s race and religion are protected classes that would be “diminished” by also including sexual orientation and gender identity.

“These classes are protected because of national discrimination, not occasional discrimination,” Hutchings said. In her view, apparently, discrimination is acceptable if it’s regional and doesn’t happen all the time to people who don’t fit her world view. By that logic, Jim Crow laws, isolated as they were to the South, should have been A-OK.

Meanwhile, Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) complained he was discriminated against when he went after three UW students who presented what he viewed as an anti-gun skit on campus earlier this year. He failed to mention that he also threatened to cut off the English Department’s funding because of the incident, though he is powerless to do so on his own. He also failed to mention that the students and their professor said the senator threatened to set off explosives (Bouchard says fireworks) to see how long it would take campus police to respond.

“I don’t recall any of these people who would support [the policy] coming to my rescue when I was attacked at the university,” Bouchard said, oblivious to the fact that what he experienced — righteous public and political outrage — was a consequence of his boorish behavior, not his identity. 

Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) is a UW professor and legislator who was verbally assaulted last year by members of the public at a legislative committee meeting in Sundance. In order to testify regarding legislation she had to sit next to people who called her “vile” and “disgusting” because of her sexuality.

The chairman told the harassers to keep their comments civil — apparently the new standard — but certainly no legislator in the room rushed to her defense.

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) said one legislator during the 2011 session claimed that all gays are dead by age 40.

“That’s kind of what I think this policy is in place to protect,” Zwonitzer said. “We have members of our institution who are held to a higher standard as elected officials than the average member of the public, who can say whatever they want in a committee meeting.”

The now overturned policy, Zwonitzer said, was intended to spell out how complaints of discrimination are filed and what actions the Management Council can take. Rothfuss said as now adopted, the policy requires that a legislator or staff member be charged with a crime to be disciplined.

Several people gave moving testimony in favor of keeping the policy’s language intact, including a bisexual member of the Air Force stationed at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, a man who is worried about how his transgender grandchild will be treated if she visits Wyoming, and a Laramie man who reminded the council that “you can be Christian and still be LGBTQ.”

But the speaker whose testimony should have changed the minds of legislators who favored the incredibly weakened, vague version of the policy was Rev. Hannah Roberts Villnave of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Cheyenne.

Before she and her wife moved here, their friends worried if the couple would be safe. Villnave told them not to be concerned, Wyoming was a “live and let live” state. There’s yet another truism negated by contemporary political extremism.

The policy the council approved 10 months ago was in keeping with the practices of other states, reflected contemporary Wyoming and American culture and respected the will of the electorate. In Massachusetts, for example, voters rejected a ballot initiative to overturn an LGBTQ anti-discrimination law 68 percent to 32 percent. That’s about as straight forward a form of democracy as you’ll find in this country.

Yet Wyoming continues to move in the wrong direction.

The reverend said LGBTQ individuals, whether they are citizens, interns, staffers or legislators, must be “unharassed in our interactions with the folks we have elected to represent us.” Now, she is wondering if she and her family should stay in “a place that so despises us.”

In a single statement she addressed the bottom line of the meeting: Her same-sex marriage “does not interfere with anyone’s freedom of religion.” The logic and truth of that statement is so self evident as to be farcical. 

I am shocked and troubled that only one of the council’s eight Republicans — Sen. Michael Von Flatern (R-Gillette) — had the spine to vote with the five Democrats against legally marginalizing Wyoming’s vulnerable and repressed.

The council’s action sends an insulting, uncaring and shameful message to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters: Wyoming doesn’t believe you have the right to love who you love or be who you are.

Many of us don’t agree, and we’ll continue fighting for LGBTQ rights and to pass laws and policies that protect some of our most vulnerable people from all forms of discrimination wherever they occur.

Kerry Drake is a veteran Wyoming journalist, and a contributor to WyoFile.com and WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog. He has more than 30 years experience at the Wyoming Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune as a reporter, editor and editorial writer. He lives in Casper.


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