Every year brings new attacks on the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and the transgendered in Wyoming. I’m sick and tired of it.
Wyoming claims it’s the “Equality State,” a place where people value individualism and respect the rights of others to live their lives as they please, unencumbered by the state or by their neighbors.
I’d love to live in that Wyoming, but it doesn’t exist. I live in a state where voters keep re-electing legislators who try to pass bills that curtail the rights of the LGBTQ population. It’s a state where lawmakers feel comfortable allowing people to denigrate and dehumanize anyone whose sexual orientation offends them.
And based on an incident last week in Riverton, it’s a state where a conservative anti-gay radio talk show host and a legislator can badger a school district superintendent about why he’s allowing students to promote a “gay agenda” in schools.
The news isn’t all bad. John Birbari — former chairman of the Fremont County GOP — was suspended by the Wind River Radio Network for at least two weeks, and maybe more depending on the fallout from his rant, according to station manager Valorie Mayo. Maybe he’ll do his audience a favor and decide not to come back to tout his version of Christian values while declaring that gays are a menace to schoolchildren.
Birbari tried to corner Fremont County School District No. 25 Superintendent Terry Snyder on homosexuality after a listener sent Birbari a photo. It showed a painting of an LGBTQ rainbow flag displayed on a wall at Riverton High School. It had the message “Love is Love” on it, which the broadcaster called “strange.”
He asked Snyder if the display was something he supports, even though “the homosexual lifestyle has been proven to be very destructive medically” with high disease and suicide rates. To his credit Snyder, who seemed understandably taken aback by the ambush-style interview, said his district values all of its students and will not allow discrimination against any of them.
Bibari is also the ex-chairman of the Wyoming Family Coalition, which promoted anti-gay marriage legislation in the state years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such unions legal.
In an attempt to show how dangerous it is to be gay, Bibari admitted he has known some homosexuals but said all of their lives ended tragically — except, of course, for the one who turned his back on the lifestyle and “went back to his wife and kids.”
The conversation heated up when Bibari talked about how homosexuality isn’t endorsed by “our moral code, the bible.” Snyder accused him of having “dated” opinions. “For you to paint that [gays] are the evil of society, I don’t think that’s appropriate,” Snyder said.
Bibari denied saying that, and didn’t in fact use those words, but it’s exactly the sentiment he conveyed and Snyder held him to it.
Things got really weird when Bibari suddenly asked the superintendent if he would take a question from a listener. Instantly an unidentified caller asked if Snyder would also allow Christian messages to be displayed in school. Snyder patiently explained the separation of church and state to him.
Rep. Tim Salazar (R-Dubois) later confirmed to WyoFile reporter Andrew Graham that he was the caller, but denied there was any collusion (my word) between him and Bibari. If you believe there wasn’t, you are also probably convinced that President Trump never even heard of Stormy Daniels and certainly didn’t pay her any hush money for their sex romp.
My beef with Salazar’s actions is his choice not to identify himself or his position as a state legislator. If he’s so proud of his beliefs, and was calling at the urging of concerned constituents, as he told Graham, why did he try to hide his identity? Voters deserve to know what their representatives think about LGBTQ issues and how they act on those beliefs.
The most recent ugly anti-gay incident involving the Legislature occurred just last November at a committee meeting in Sundance. The state’s only openly gay lawmaker, Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie), endured continual verbal abuse about her sexual orientation. She had sponsored an innocuous bill to update state statutes by removing words like “man and wife” and replacing them with gender neutral terms like “spouse” and “married couple.”
A man sitting next to Connolly told the panel that it was “disgusting to hear her drivel.” A rancher absurdly claimed that if bills like hers become law it could lead to bestiality. You get the drift. No one stopped the denigration of a fellow legislator.
If candidates won’t share their views about LGBTQ discrimination on the campaign trail, voters must learn what they think from their behavior on the floor of the House and Senate. Several contradictory bills have been passed in one chamber only to be rejected in the other.
In 2015 the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill to make it illegal to discriminate against gays in the workplace or in housing. After an emotional hour-long debate the House killed it. It turned out some of its most socially conservative members had something very different up their sleeves — a “religious freedom” bill.
The House passed its bill, which would allow businesses to discriminate against gays who want to marry by refusing to provide their services, including selling cakes or taking wedding photos. All someone had to do is declare that their religious beliefs would not allow them to participate in such a ceremony.
Fortunately the Senate refused to even consider the bill and it died without debate. The issue came up again in 2017 when Rep. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) introduced the infamous House Bill 135, which was labeled an anti-discrimination bill but actually did the opposite.
HB 135 was a particularly insidious version of the standard religious freedom bill. It allowed people to justify discrimination against the LGBTQ community on the grounds of their “moral convictions.”
You know it wasn’t so long ago that a disappointing number of Americans were morally convicted against desegregation and interracial marriage.
Steinmetz’s bill added a particularly sinister twist. The bill would have forbidden any state or local government, board, agency, department or institution from doing anything about it. If a firefighter, for example, objected to gays on moral grounds he could refuse to help them — and if the fire chief made him offer assistance the firefighter could sue the city.
Once LGBTQ advocates realized what the bill did and started lobbying against it, it wasn’t long before Steinmetz withdrew it. It wasn’t a bad bill, she lamely explained, but it was pulled because there just wasn’t enough time “to fully discuss this important issue.”
You know when would be a good time to discuss it? Now, during the interim before the 2019 general session. I know legislative leaders have already assigned issues to committees, but the Joint Judiciary Committee works quickly — surely it could draft an important bill like preventing workplace and housing discrimination against a large segment of the state’s population.
In his radio diatribe Bibari noted that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not protect people due to their sexual orientation, but that outdated position is very likely to change. Two federal appeals courts have ruled that sexual orientation is an inherently protected class that should be included in the Civil Rights Act’s prohibition of discrimination based on sex. Another court ruled against the concept, setting up a potential landmark decision if it goes to the Supreme Court.
Before it does, though, the Wyoming Legislature could pass a state law against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. We didn’t do that for marriage equality, but for once can we choose to be on the right side of history? We can drop the loathsome attacks on our LGBTQ brothers and sisters and act to protect them before the courts mandate it.