Geography is still the largest challenge for the progress of LGBTQ+ rights.
For those of us living in metropolises like New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, LGBTQ+ pride is a community-wide affair. Pride flags wave from storefronts, places of worship and homes. Pronouns are shared at social and professional events alike. Drag shows are as popular as karaoke nights. Queer comedians, artists and politicians are celebrated daily. It can be easy to feel in these environments that the 2015 legalization of gay marriage marked a new era in this nation, one where queer folks can proudly work, live, and thrive in their local communities, welcomed and unafraid.
But this is not the whole story.
Nationally, LGBTQ+ youth make up nearly 40% of the homeless youth population; lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are nearly five times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts; 40% of transgender adults have attempted suicide; and trans women of color face the highest risk of homicide of any demographic.
For students living in rural areas, it is difficult to reconcile these haunting statistics with the political milestones for the LGBTQ+ community— accomplishments students hear about but that are not realized in their own neighborhoods and schools.
In Laramie, Wyoming in 1998, Matthew Shepard was brutally assaulted, tied to a fence, and killed for being gay by two Laramie residents. The nation was shocked in 1998 by this horrific hate crime, and many held vigils because of the connection they felt to Matthew. In 1998 and today, Matthew could have been any student sitting next to us in class right now.
When we headed to Laramie to present at the Shepard Symposium on Social Justice’s Gay Straight Alliance Day at the University of Wyoming, we knew about the horror of Matthew Shepard’s murder, but little else about the rural, Wyoming town.
Friday, April 12, 2019 | 1 p.m.
After flying into Denver, Colorado and driving two hours amidst a light snow in April, we expected tumble weeds and a dying, small town still riddled with homophobia. What we were greeted with was the opposite. Sparkling new strip malls, Starbucks and a new charter school met us at the outside of town. The downtown was filled with thriving local shops you’d see in Downtown Denver and smiles in the aisle of a grocery store. Trying to keep an open mind, we shopped through the downtown and sought to understand more about the people who filled this town.
Anyone who’s ever lived in Wyoming knows that the motto is, “Live and Let Live.” One person’s problems are not another person’s problems and some things just aren’t to be discussed openly. Being LGBTQ+ is one of them.
It wasn’t until pondering into a local book store and connecting with the older lady working that anyone opened up about Matthew Shepard. She shared her opinion that she thought Matthew’s murder was a hate crime, not a drug crime. To us, coming from Iowa and South Carolina, we had never heard the narrative that drugs were even involved.
“Folks in this town would rather have had people think that we live in a drug-riddled community than one that has gay people in it.”
This interaction opened our eyes that to discuss this with residents, and especially students, would be filled with nuance, trauma and overcoming stereotypes discussing being LGBTQ+ in Wyoming.
Here to Stay
Saturday, April 13, 2019 | 10 a.m.
The next morning we headed to the University of Wyoming for the symposium. Event organizers were very welcoming to having us join their GSA day and we’ve kept in touch months later. Students traveled hours to attend the 1-day event and surround themselves with love. With lots of rainbow stickers, a community mural project, and an acknowledgement of the Native lands the university occupies, we began a roundtable.
“What is it like to grow up queer in Wyoming?”
This is the question that prompted students from Cheyenne Central High School’s GSA to create a podcast about their experiences as part of the LGBTQ+ and ally community. The podcast students created enumerated the challenges queer youth face in Wyoming.
“Young people in this state, all young people, but especially queer youths think that they aren’t being heard or aren’t being protected or don’t cross the minds of those who are in power,” one student said in the podcast.
Students in the roundtable shared that in Wyoming, there’s a deep fear that accompanies being queer in Wyoming and a hesitancy to pursue allyship.
“It’s in the state of dangerous neutrality where we see such a stagnant pace of growth,” a student shared in the podcast. “A refusal to pick a side in these times is extremely dangerous.”
The Cheyenne students are no stranger to a stagnant pace of progress when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights in Wyoming. A month earlier, they visited their state legislature to push their representative to support a bill protecting against job discrimination based on sexuality. Instead of having a conversation about legislation, however, the students were met with hostility from their representative, who equated homosexuality with beastility and pedophilia.
Without legal protections, social acceptance, or a consistent base of allyship or support support from adults and even other students around around them, students in Wyoming are left to carve out their own spaces to celebrate being queer. Being queer in Wyoming comes with isolation, fear, and a perpetual need to fight just to feel like you can be yourself.
But leaving Wyoming for more open-minded communities isn’t the answer either. Wyoming is home, and queer youth “shouldn’t have to run away to feel like we belong,” one student shared in the podcast.
“It’s important to know that Wyoming, in all of its quirks and all of its flaws and all of its own special ways of existence… that we are here and are here to make change and to be ourselves and to advocate,” shared another student. “We’re here to stay.”
Saturday, April 13, 2019 | 7 p.m.
In our exploration around Laramie, we came across a vegan restaurant, bookstore and coffee shop that students shared were accepting spaces in the community. Even in remote spaces, there are Wyomingites that are committed to carving out inclusive spaces. We even had a friend who spent a semester in Laramie, and during that time, found magic in those spaces to come out and come to terms with his own sexuality. He found a boyfriend at The University of Wyoming and serves as an example of the growth that Matthew Shepard would be proud of and that LGBTQ+ high schooler’s in Wyoming are desperately seeking.
Navigating Shepard’s Legacy
Sunday, April 14, 2019 | 1 p.m.
On our final day in Laramie, we met with a group of current students at the University of Wyoming. We wanted to know how current students, queer and allies, feel about living the legacy of Matthew Shepard, knowingly entering the same space that failed Matthew.
“I never lived in a world with Matthew Shepard, but I live in a world of his legacy. He’s opened my eyes backward like a rear view mirror to see history.”
One student summarized it well. What happened to Matthew is not unique to Laramie; any openly queer college student in any rural town in the U.S. could have been in his shoes. In fact, many have been, and just didn’t garner the media attention Matthew did.
While they didn’t feel any imminent threats, all of the students noted that there isn’t an open same-sex couple on their campus that holds hands and they could name a few students identifying as transgender.
After Matthew’s murder, the Shepard family started a foundation that continues to carry on the legacy of Matthew.
Matt’s mom, Judy Shepard, says in her book, “For all who ask what they can do for Matt and for all the other victims of hate—my answer is to educate and bring understanding where you see hate and ignorance, bring light where you see darkness, bring freedom where there is fear, and begin to heal.”
Sunday, April 14, 2019 | 3:30 p.m.
On our way out of town, we drove to the location where Matthew Shepard was murdered. There was no longer a fence. There was no memorial of any kind. A dirt road, a two story house, and “No Trespassing” signs are all that mark the site of the hate crime that brought us to Laramie.
BBC news called the tragedy “the murder that changed America.” It’s not clear that Shepard’s story has changed Laramie in the same way.
But hope persists loudly in the brave and powerful voices of the young people fighting every day to make Wyoming a safer, more inclusive place to grow up as a part of the LGBTQ+ community.