College dumps transgender protections after GOP, community pressure

This Facebook post by Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) shows a packed crowd at an Eastern Wyoming College Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday night. The board was meeting in part to add new policies about transgender employees and student-athletes. It withdrew the policies following opposition from the estimated 120-170 meeting attendees. (Facebook)

Eastern Wyoming College’s board of trustees abandoned proposed policies protecting transgender employees and student athletes from discrimination Tuesday after an estimated 120-190 people showed up to oppose them.

Wyoming GOP chairman Frank Eathorne and state representative Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) were among the crowd opposing the policies at the trustees meeting in Torrington. Eathorne was speaking for the Wyoming Republican Party when he opposed the policies, he told WyoFile.

Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) also attended the meeting, according to a post on his Facebook page.

The board was due to make its final vote on two related measures. One would have added gender identity to the list of traits covered by the school’s employee anti-discrimination policies and created a policy for transgender employees. The other would have established eligibility guidelines for transgender students competing in collegiate sports. Board members voted to withdraw those policies. 

Tuesday’s meeting came two weeks after a former Republican county party chairman was suspended from his job as a talk-radio host for making homophobic remarks on air during an interview with a Fremont County school superintendent. During the interview, host John Birbari took an initially anonymous phone call from Rep. Tim Salazar (R-Dubois), who joined in the questioning of the superintendent.

LGBTQ advocates in the state have begun to wonder if an anti-LGBTQ position has become mainstream for the Wyoming GOP.

At Tuesdays meeting, Eathorne read the trustees a resolution passed by the state party’s central committee in October 2017, he told WyoFile. The “SOGI Resolution” was passed to address issues of sexual orientation and gender identity, including municipal and county ordinances against LGBTQ discrimination, according to the Wyoming GOP website. The resolution suggests that anti-discrimination laws protecting people for their sexual orientation or gender identity infringes on the rights of others.

“I’m representing policy that was passed by the party,” he said he told the board before reading.

“Equal protection under the law demands protection against personal injury or property loss, but cannot demand affirmation of personal ideas, choices, or behaviors without infringing upon the integrity and property rights of other persons,” the resolution read. Ordinances and laws about sexual orientation and gender identity “obliterate this foundational legal distinction.”.

New policies had previously seen trustee support

One of Eastern Wyoming College’s proposed policies would have defined the conditions under which a student-athlete transitioning gender could participate in male or female sports. It addressed, for example, how progress of a student’s hormone therapy would affect eligibility. In establishing clear guidelines, the policy sought to provide an avenue for transgender students to be able to participate in sports, and as such “uphold the principles of equity and inclusion,” it read. The policies were based on policies adopted by national collegiate athletic associations.

The other policy would have updated anti-discrimination practices for employees by adding language around gender identity, gender expression, pregnancy and transgender status. Those personal traits would have been added to those already protected from discrimination, said Dr. Lesley Travers, president of Eastern Wyoming College.

The college currently declares it embraces “differences in age, color, disability, ethnicity, family or marital status, gender, language, national origin, physical and mental ability, political affiliation, race, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, veteran status, and other characteristics that make employees unique.” Following Tuesday’s meeting, transgender employees will not be included in that written policy.

The policies had passed earlier review by the board of trustees and were up for their final reading when the opponents showed up, Travers said. Final readings are given public notice in local newspapers. 

“Most of them had religious concerns,” Travers said of those who opposed the policies. “They were very concerned about transgendered males on women’s teams for athletics and also restroom usage.”

Travers described meeting attendees as civil. “They were very courteous,” she said. Around 15-20 people spoke, Travers said. “I wouldn’t consider it anti-gay, I think the people were very respectful,” she said.

Opponents’ apprehensions conflicted with Travers’ policy concerns as a community college president, she said.

“The people last night were concerned about values and Christian beliefs and many of those things,” Travers said. “As a president I have to look at a college that is public and open enrollment and I have to do my best to protect all students that attend Eastern Wyoming College.”

The college decided to pursue the policies after the Trump administration removed protections for transgender people from national guidelines, Travers said. In October 2017, the U.S. Department of Education halted protections for transgender students in public schools that had been put in place by the Obama administration — specifically a rule allowing transgender students to use the bathroom that align with their gender identity, according to the Washington Post.

Eastern Wyoming College has no plans to reconsider the policies for now, Travers said, and will instead wait to see if the Wyoming Legislature or the federal government provides further guidance on protecting transgender students.

After the public testimony, Travers suggested the board withdraw the policies, and they did so. “We are after all a community college and we do listen to what the community has to say,” Travers said.

In a video posted on Bouchard’s Facebook page, thunderous applause is heard following the decision.

Paper policies, real people

A transgender computer science instructor at Casper College said an earlier removal of similar nondiscrimination policies for LGBTQ people at that institution has driven her to leave the state. Casper College has since reinstated that policy, but the reversal came too late for mathematics PhD and computer scientist Kathy Lenth.

“I found a job in Salt Lake City pretty rapidly and now we’re moving there,” Lenth said in a telephone interview from Casper. She was referring to herself and her wife, who is also an instructor at the college. “Nobody has a right to discriminate against me whether it’s implicit or explicit.”

Last April, the board of trustees at Casper College voted to remove language including LGBTQ people from their anti-discrimination policies. It was the last straw for Lenth, who had been working at the college for five years and living in Wyoming for nine.

“I already kind of felt like my community in my state didn’t want me here and now my employee didn’t either,” she said.

Lenth, who was profiled by the Casper Star-Tribune following her transition from male to female, told WyoFile she grew tired of what she saw as an unwelcoming attitude to LGTBQ people from policymakers in the state. When she learned the college she taught at had removed its policy to protect people like her from discrimination, she decided to seek work elsewhere.

“Our colleges are kind of the bastions of inclusiveness in the state but only up to a point I guess,” she said. “Everybody is supposed to be able to come get an education.”

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Last month, the Casper College Board of Trustees replaced the language, according to a webpage detailing changes to its employee policies. But Lenth had already found a job at Westminster College, a four year liberal arts college in Salt Lake City. “They have very, very strong LGBT protections,” Lenth said.

Community colleges and computer science instruction are seen as pillars for economic diversification by Gov. Matt Mead’s ENDOW initiative, which seeks to move Wyoming away from the booms and busts of the energy industry.

Steinmetz mum on reasoning

In an interview and subsequent email correspondence, Steinmetz declined to explain exactly why she opposed the policies considered by the EWC board of trustees, or to share the text of her public testimony against them. She was unsure WyoFile would use the statements she made in the public meeting fairly based on prior coverage of her policy positions, Steinmetz said.

In the weeks before the meeting, Steinmetz posted to a Goshen County Republicans Facebook page alerting people about it. In an interview, she said she learned of the new policies after some of her constituents sent them to her.

Steinmetz estimated there were around 190 people attending the meeting — 120 people in the room, plus 70 more outside in the hall. Travers and an EWC employee, Holly Branham, estimated there were approximately 120 attendees in the room.

“We’ve never had a board meeting where people came to make comment,” Branham, the executive assistant for the board of trustees, said. “Let alone 120 of them.”

Steinmetz described the large turnout as justification for stances she’s taken in Cheyenne.

“Now you know also from this meeting why I take the positions I do at the Legislature because it is our community values,” she said. Steinmetz is running for Senate District 3 this election cycle, as the seat is being vacated by Sen. Curt Meier — who seeks to become Wyoming’s next state treasurer. 

During the 2017 General Session, Steinmetz was the primary sponsor on a controversial bill that sought to protect people acting in accordance with their beliefs about same-sex marriage, or about gender being determined at birth, from government penalties. 

Steinmetz and bill supporters called it a religious freedom bill. LGBTQ advocates said it sought to legalize discrimination and would have allowed people — including public employees like police or firefighters — to refuse service to someone based on that person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. 

In a Facebook post on the Goshen County Republicans page following the event, Steinmetz thanked her “friends and neighbors” for the turnout. She also warned them that this fight would go on. 

“Be vigilant, this is an ongoing issue at the State level due to the fact that highly funded special interest groups are being funded from outside the state in order to accomplish radical anti family and anti Christian goals,” the post signed by Steinmetz and posted to the county party’s Facebook page read.

Steinmetz did not respond to an email asking her to identify which special interest groups she was referring to. Shortly after WyoFile sent the email, the original Facebook post was replaced. The new post thanked Goshen County residents for attending and for their civility toward the board of trustees. It no longer contained the warning about special interest groups.

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Andrew Graham: Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at andrew@wyofile.com, follow him @AndrewGraham88