Sara Burlingame

Former state Rep. Sara Burlingame, D-Cheyenne. Courtesy

“Are you safe?” That’s what people always want to know when I tell them that I live in Wyoming. It is certainly the first thing people wanted to know when they heard that a Cheyenne bar was selling a T-shirt that said, “In Wyoming we have a cure for AIDS/ We shoot fin fots.”

If you aren’t a member of the LGBTQ community, maybe people ask you about the rodeo or the Tetons. For the record, we’d love to be asked about the rodeo, we’re proud of hosting the largest volunteer-run outdoor rodeo in the world. And, of course, we like the Tetons as much as anyone else. But people ask us about our safety for a reason, and the reason has been staring us in the face for 22 years. Just as long as the bar has been selling those shirts.

Twenty-two years ago, a University of Wyoming college student named Matthew Shepard was beaten to death on the outskirts of Laramie. Our little state, home to barely 500,000 souls, was unprepared for the media onslaught that followed. People wanted to know, was this a part of our culture?

We are rural, conservative and quick to dismiss outsiders, and this portrayal of our state hurt us. We wanted to say, “This could have happened anywhere!” And we were right. This could have happened anywhere.

And it happened here. Say that last line again. It happened here. Matthew, a young son of Wyoming, was murdered by two other young sons of Wyoming. Who taught those men to react to gay people with violence and fear? What churches, what schools, what dinner tables reinforced a message that negated our worth and dignity?

That is a hard conversation to have. It requires a kind of excoriating honesty that makes most of us uncomfortable. We learned after Matthew’s murder that we had no appetite for asking, “Lord, is it I?” And that silence, that shrinking from the question, bears rotten fruit. We cling to conspiracy theories that erase what Matthew’s own killers have attested, “If Matthew was straight, he’d be alive today.”

We may shirk from this hard truth, but the rest of the world doesn’t. We are a punchline, a single note that wipes out all of the hard-won fairness that we have fought for since statehood.

We are the most conservative state in the union by most metrics. A supermajority in the Legislature, our top five elected officials are all Republican, and Wyoming voted for then-President Trump by the widest margin in 2020.

And for over 40 years, the most conservative state in the country has defeated every anti-LGBT bill that was introduced. We have a better track record than blue states of defeating bills that seek to limit the civic freedom of LGBTQ Wyomingites. There is so much to be proud of here. And it’s not a stunt, or a ploy. People in Wyoming believe deeply in our “live and let live” motto.

Small government isn’t an oxymoron here, and our Republican colleagues have proven time and again that they’ll defeat bills that seek to harm us. But they won’t pass good bills that help us. That has been the bridge that many of our friends and neighbors have not been willing to cross for us.

We still shy away from recognizing the hard truth that shirts like the one being sold are also who we are. We may want to ignore it into oblivion, but that doesn’t actually work. What works is raising your voice and making a new day rise in Wyoming.

It means saying that this is the year Wyoming will finally pass a hate-crimes bill. It means supporting the people doing the hard work of bringing change to their communities, like Wyoming Equality, Wyoming AIDS Assistance, The Matthew Shepard Foundation, Casper PRIDE, PFLAG Gillette and all over the state. Reach out and ask how you can help. Stop by the office and get a Pride flag for your business or home. Invite us to speak in your churches and schools.

There is no place that I love better than Wyoming. I feel the glacial construction of the Laramide Orogeny in my bones. I don’t love Wyoming in a mild way – I’m not built that way. If you love Wyoming, too, and you know that we could be better, I am asking you to not take away the message that the bar agreed to stop carrying that awful shirt, so our work is done here. Our work will be done when people stop asking “Are you safe there?” when we tell them where we’re from.

Be part of that change. Get involved. Or be honest with yourself, that you may be part of the problem.

Sara Burlingame is the executive director of Wyoming Equality, a Cheyenne-based nonprofit organization striving to achieve equity for all LGBTQ Wyomingites by building broad and inclusive communities.

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