House Minority Floor Leader Cathy Connolly hadn’t anticipated controversy. She saw her bill as a clean-up of statutory language; a long-overdue update of gender references to reflect the modern realities of gay marriage and women in the workforce.
A committee meeting in Sundance proved her wrong.
Connolly, who is in a same-sex marriage, has proposed legislation that would change references to “husband and wife” to gender-neutral terms like “spouse,” “married couple” or “parents.” It would also clarify problematic pieces of Wyoming law that refer to the wife of a policeman or firefighter, as though those jobs are held only by men. Thus, the bill would clarify the law for heterosexual couples as well as same-sex ones, proponents say. What the bill does not try to do, Connolly said, is change any state policies. It’s simply an update to reflect modern realities, including the implications of the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges case, which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
The Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee met in Sundance on Nov. 20, to vote on whether to sponsor the legislation. At a September meeting in Lander, the corporations committee advanced it with a voice vote. The minutes show no public opposition. Until a few days before the meeting, Connolly expected similar silence in Sundance.
Instead, Connolly sat for more than two hours while one-by-one members of the public came up, sat down next to her and testified, mostly against the bill. The bill opponents’ language, she told WyoFile almost two weeks later, was an unvarnished display of anti-gay sentiment. Throughout the public comment period, her legislative colleagues watched and largely stayed silent.
“My humanity was attacked,” she said. “I wasn’t ready for it.”
WyoFile obtained an audio recording of the public testimony from the Legislative Service Office.
At legislative committee meetings, the lawmakers typically sit shoulder-to-shoulder, like judges in a courtroom behind a long table facing the public and another table where witnesses sit. Sometimes, a bill sponsor or someone with expertise will sit at the witness table during the public comment session. That was the case in Sundance, where Connolly, who is not on the corporations committee, was asked to remain after presenting the bill. That left her sitting right next to those who came up to speak against her bill — and, frequently, against her marriage and sexuality.
The attacks started with the first speaker after Senate Chairman Cale Case (R-Lander) opened the meeting to public testimony.
“Listening to this lady here, it’s offensive to me and my wife about this language,” said Erik Akola, from outside Sundance. “It’s extremely offensive. To change husband and wife, mother and father, for a few people. When are we going to wake up in America and stop this foolishness?”
Akola introduced himself as a long time Alaska resident who moved to Wyoming several years ago. “I moved here because men were men and women are women,” he said. “They’re not spouses — so to speak — they’re husbands and wives, mothers and fathers,” he said.
“It’s disgusting to listen to her drivel,” Akola said, referring to Connolly.
At that point, Case intervened. “OK,” the committee chairman said. “That could be improper sir. Let’s not pick on other people.”
“They’re picking on us,” the Sundance resident responded. He did not directly reference Connolly again, but continued to speak against the bill.
“Our statutes are fine,” he said. “They may offend a few people. That’s OK. We can all agree to disagree, but we should not take the minority, I mean small, small minority and offend the rest of us.”
Two hours later, the committee voted 8-6 not to sponsor the legislation.
Previous hearings had given Connolly little reason for concern heading into Sundance. The two committee chairmen — Sen. Case and Rep. Daniel Zwonitzer — were cosponsoring it. The House side of the committee had already passed an earlier version during the 2017 General Session, 6-3.
That session, Connolly had asked Speaker of the House Steve Harshman to hold the bill back from the floor after deciding it needed further work. Now, after months of work from the Legislative Service Office, the bill was ready, Connolly said. Following the September meeting in Lander, it had also been reviewed by three Cheyenne attorneys in private practice, selected by LSO.
One of the attorney’s clients, a same-sex married couple, had moved to Colorado rather than negotiate Wyoming’s statutes to claim parentage of their child, Connolly told WyoFile. Another attorney’s client was engaged in a heated child custody battle, Connolly said, and opposing counsel had used the current language to restrict her visitation. The attorneys strengthened both Connolly’s conviction about the bill’s necessity and her optimism it would succeed, she said.
However, some time in the weeks before the Sundance meeting a national conservative activist group got involved. The weekend before the meeting, members of the committee received emails from voters that included a memo listing arguments against the bill. The arguments were written by an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom, according to a copy of the email obtained by WyoFile.
The Scottsdale, Arizona-based group has more than 3,000 lawyers, and works to roll back or oppose legislation that creates specific protections for LGBTQ people around the world, according to a recent report in The New York Times.
Alliance Defending Freedom has been involved in the state before, defending Pinedale judge Ruth Neely after her statements that she would not perform a gay marriage caused the Wyoming Supreme Court to censure her. ADF now seeks to take Neely’s case to the Supreme Court.
ADF did not respond to a request from WyoFile to verify the memo’s origins and to interview the purported author of the legal points, whom the memo named as Matt Sharp, senior counsel. Sharp directs the group’s Center for Legislative Advocacy, according to ADF’s website.
Connolly received a copy of the memo on Saturday night, she told WyoFile. The meeting was Monday. “I spent the night responding,” she said. “I had five pages of notes.” The notes were legal arguments, she said, in anticipation that perhaps Sharp or another attorney would show up to testify. That did not happen.
On Sunday, Connolly drove to Sundance. Lawmakers and lobbyists mixed at the same businesses in the small town. That night, Connolly heard that colleagues she thought were supportive of the bill may had begun to waver following email pressure, she said. Later, Rep. Tyler Lindholm, a committee member who lives in Sundance, visited. He told Connolly there had been a post on a local community Facebook page calling people out to fight the bill, she said.
WyoFile found a post about the bill on a Facebook page called “Crook County WY Area Buy/Sell/Trade.” It was posted on Nov. 17, three days before the meeting, and called for people to call committee members. “Tell them how you feel about changing gender references (identity) from cradle to grave,” the post read.
Local churches in the Sundance and Gillette areas appear to have discussed the bill with their congregations as well. Several bill opponents who spoke were pastors, and nearly all referenced religion or God. Most were from the area around Sundance and Gillette.
“I didn’t even know about this happening until yesterday morning in our Sunday school class,” began a woman from Hulett, whose name was not audible on the recording.
“I as a woman am proud that I am a woman. I don’t want to be X,” she said. “If I’m X and I’m just a parent, I’m not even mom, what is my son and my daughter? Are they X also?”
“God created the Earth,” she continued. “And in our Constitution it says we have inalienable rights of life liberty and happiness. And that same God who was our creator also created man and woman. Male and female he created them. And he created them for the purpose of re creation.
If everyone became homosexual or lesbianism [sic] they could … the world could de-create itself. We could put ourselves out of existence.”
Not so Supreme Court?
It was unclear how many of the bill opponents speaking in Sundance had read the ADF memo. Some used similar arguments to the memo, but many did not. The most notable difference between the ADF argument and the testimony was that several opponents did not believe gay marriage was legal in Wyoming. The bill, they said, was a backdoor attempt to legalize it.
“I can’t help but feel that there is an agenda that goes beyond just changing the language to acknowledging and making legal in this state same-gender marriage.” said Richard Prettyman, a pastor at the Central Baptist Church in Gillette. He said he worried it would force churches to perform gay marriages, even if the pastor was opposed to the idea.
Case told the pastor that gay marriage had been legalized by the Supreme Court. “The Supreme Court is the only thing that gets to decide the Constitution and they decided that is legal,” he said. “So it is legal in Wyoming … But churches don’t have to perform ceremonies”
Following Prettyman’s comments, Case asked the LSO staff on hand if anything in the bill would require a church to perform gay marriage.
“There is nothing about churches in this bill draft.” an LSO attorney answered.
Others went much further in their worries about what consequences the bill could have.
“What will next constitute a union?” asked Kim Reed, a Campbell County rancher. “A man and his sister? You know, a woman and a dog? I hate to think about what comes after this.”
Reed also equated removing gendered language from Wyoming statute to global social ills.
“I am afraid for this great state of Wyoming and this country, in light of the state of affairs recently with the random shootings, the acts of terrorism,” Reed said. “I do believe things are collapsing here.”
“It’s a lot about what we’re talking about right now,” she continued. “Taking man, woman, wife, husband out of language. Saying it’s archaic… that is offensive to me, just like some other people have said. This is the core of our nation. Man and woman. Husband and wife. This is the way God ordained it.”
For Connolly, seated next to Reed at the table, this and many other statements felt like deeply personal attacks, she said. “There’s something so basic about our sexuality,” Connolly told WyoFile. “It’s a core I think of who each and every one of us is.”
“These people knew nothing more about me or others who are gay, and without knowing anything else, vilified us,” she said. “They made clear that they don’t want me here, they don’t want people like me here. They’d be happy if I left.”
Connolly has introduced or been involved with gay-rights bills in the Legislature for years. “They’ve been really difficult times,” she said. But, “I think I was more prepared for them.” Despite ADF’s memo and the warning from Lindholm, the testimony in Sundance was unanticipated, she said. “The shock of it was enormous,” she said. “And my hope that things had changed was really shattered.”
With the exception of the first speaker, Case did not intervene with any other bill opponent, though he did repeatedly seek to move the public comment phase of the meeting along.
Zwonitzer at one point countered claims that the majority of Wyoming would not want the bill by noting that he had seen various polls where the majority of Wyoming supported same-sex marriage. He and Case also sought to counter mistaken claims about the bill’s impact. Other than that, there were few questions from lawmakers.
While they are not audible on the LSO recording, several participants — including Zwonitzer and Sara Burlingame, the director of LGBTQ advocacy group Wyoming Equality — told WyoFile that at various moments during public testimony members of the crowd called out “amen,” as though at a church gathering.
“It was unduly cruel,” said Rep. Patrick Sweeney, a Casper Republican.
Throughout the testimony, Connolly stayed quiet, with the exception of a few times when she was asked technical questions about the legislation.
Today, she’s torn by the decision not to speak up when she felt gay people were being attacked, she said.
“Do I stand up and scream ‘how dare you?’” she asked. “‘How dare you insult me like this?’ Which is what I wanted to do … how dare you talk to me, about me like this and think it’s OK. You have just attacked my humanity and you think it’s OK. It’s not.”
Doing so would have broken legislative decorum, she said. “Instead what I did is what I do,” she said. “I’m a legislator. I did my job, and I did my job the best way I know how.”
Connolly believes the committee chairmen should have intervened, though they too were caught off guard, she said. “It was the committee and the committee chairs’ responsibility and they failed,” she said. “And they failed at the expense of a whole group of Wyoming citizens, in particular the legislator who was sitting right there who falls into that group.”
Other bill proponents also said Case let the meeting get out of hand.
In a strongly worded letter to all 14 members of the corporations committee, Burlingame said they had allowed the meeting to lose all sense of decorum. Zwonitzer provided WyoFile with the letter upon request.
“While Sen Case redirected the comments of one citizen,” Burlingame wrote, “he did so only after the man became physically agitated and had referred to your colleague, Rep Connolly as ‘disgusting’ and ‘vile’. Testimony continued, as you all likely remember, from a variety of individuals who were allowed to compare members of mine and Rep Connolly’s community to pedophiles, perverts, and practitioners of bestiality.
“Am I delusional in thinking that your colleague and my community deserve better?” she asked.
Case has no illusions about the nature of the testimony. “They were just anti-gay and just saying it was repulsive and this was their chance to push back,” he said. But other than the clear personal attack from the first speaker, he didn’t think he should intervene.
“I think as legislators we have to be pretty hard-skinned and accept most public testimony,” he told WyoFile. “It’s a democracy people have a right to speak,”
Co-chairmen typically alternate who runs a committee meeting, and Case ran it that day. Zwonitzer, Case’s co-chair, said he would’ve intervened had he been running it.
“In that meeting atmosphere people felt they could bash gay and lesbians,” Zwonitzer told WyoFile. “I would’ve gaveled them down and said ‘Stop!’”
Not all of the arguments came from the public.
Before the vote, Rep. Roy Edwards, a Gillette Republican, said the bill would “change the moral fabric” of the country. He agreed with Reed, who equated changing gender references to anarchy.
“They want to change it to the way they would like it to be, which would for all intents and purposes tear down the Republic that God has given us,” he said. It was not clear who “they” referred to.
WyoFile attempted to interview Edwards. When told the subject of the story, he said “no comment, thank you, good day,” and apparently hung up the phone. A second call was not answered, and a voicemail left with specific questions elicited no response.
Edwards was one of 16 lawmakers in 2015 who filed an amicus brief arguing gay marriage should not be legalized in the Obergefell case, on the basis of state’s rights and on their belief that state law should define marriage as between a man and a woman. More recently, Edwards announced intentions to bring a bill to the last legislative session that would allow people to only use public bathrooms according to the gender listed on their birth certificates. Gay rights activists called it discriminatory toward transgender people. He did not introduce the bill, but Rep. Lars Lone, another corporations committee member, did.
Before the committee voted on the language clarification bill, Case correctly predicted the result. “I can see the fear factor in some of your eyes,” he said. “I’ve been reading committees for a long time, and I’d guess that this bill in its present form probably wouldn’t pass here today.”
Zwonitzer said he thinks the fury of the testimony scared several lawmakers into changing their votes. The bill was not controversial until ADF got involved, he said.
“It’s not like any one of us wants to have the wrath of the social conservatives,” he said.
Rep. Dan Furphy, a Laramie Republican, had voted for the bill last session, when the House committee passed it on. So had Rep. Jim Blackburn, a Cheyenne Republican. Both voted against it in Sundance.
Bill proponents said they believed they had the support of Sen. Tara Nethercott, a Cheyenne Republican, after the Lander meeting. Nethercott voted against the bill in Sundance.
In an interview, the senator said she did believe pieces of the statute needed to be updated. However, “before that happens it’s important that the public understand that rights aren’t being expanded nor are they being taken away,” she said.
“I think it’s important for a legislature to represent the interest of their constituency the best they can,” she added.
Zwonitzer, who also represents part of Cheyenne, said he believed many of his constituents want the bill and are affected by current statute.
Had the meeting been held in Laramie or Cheyenne, Zwonitzer said, “you would’ve seen a completely different segment of the population come in and Furphy and Nethercott would’ve voted for it.”
Fight or flight
It’s a five hour drive from Sundance back to Connolly’s home in Laramie. Along the way, Connolly said she thought about how maybe she should just keep going.
“I’m not sure where I’m going to go but I’m going to keep driving,” she said.
But her leaving Wyoming was what the opponents of gay marriage wanted, she said. “The reality is they’ve wanted me out of here for a long time. This wasn’t new.”
Instead, she believes there are reasons to stay and continue to bring gay rights bills to Wyoming’s legislature. “I remember at one point feeling really afraid for any gay or transgender kid in Sundance,” she said. At the same time, she believes the same sentiment that resists gay marriage resist other forms of change as well, she said. “Everyone who’s different,” is unwelcome under that way of thinking, she said. “Anyone. Whatever that difference is.”
Such an attitude will hurt Wyoming at a point when the state’s leaders are talking about how to promote economic diversity, Connolly said.
“What just happened is so different than how we talk about the vision that we have for Wyoming in terms of economic development,” she said. “Which absolutely recognizes the importance and relevance of diversity in so many different kinds of ways.”
Meanwhile, similar battles may play out elsewhere in Wyoming. An LGBTQ advocacy group has asked Casper’s city council to pass an anti-discrimination resolution, according to a report from the Casper Star-Tribune. The author of the Facebook post that helped drive people to the Sundance meeting published a different post calling on people to contact the Casper City Council. “This is a horrible thing that will extend special ‘rights’ and privileges to specific groups of people, while those pushing it claim it is in the name of equality,” she wrote.
Despite the vote in Sundance, the statutory gender reference bill can still be brought to the upcoming budget session by any individual legislator. It’s a more difficult road — bills need a two-thirds vote on the House or Senate floor to even be introduced during this session, which is designed to deal with the state’s budget. Not having a committee’s backing will further lower the profile of the statutory gender references bill. Connolly, however, is undeterred.
She will try to introduce the bill, she said. “Of course they’re not going to win,” she said. “By what? Shaming me into thinking that I’m not going to do my job, that I’m going to run around with my tail between my legs.”
The full audio from the public testimony and discussion of the bill is uploaded below: