As a progressive I dislike the term “outside agitators” because it’s usually wielded by conservatives to discredit what opponents like me think about an issue. The inference is that the opinion of those in power is almost universal, while a small minority is being exploited by out-of-state puppeteers who have no business interfering in Wyoming politics.
Yet I can’t describe what happened at a recent legislative meeting in Sundance without pointing out that anti-gay, right-wing Christian extremists based in Arizona riled local residents, fed them misinformation and exploited a lot of baseless homophobia. In other words, outside agitators were to blame.
What began as an innocuous bill sponsored by Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) has suddenly torn apart “the moral fabric of Wyoming,” according to residents who testified. Connolly’s bill would update statutory language by changing references like “husband and wife” to gender-neutral terms like “spouse,” “married couple” or “parents.”
Connolly, the House minority floor leader, said the current language is causing both male-female and same-sex couples problems in some legal matters, including custody cases.
Connolly sponsored a similar bill earlier this year but withdrew it so she could make sure it was as well-written as possible. She was assured by three lawyers picked by the Legislative Service Office that it is both lawful and necessary, and her bill was sailing through the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee without a hitch until the panel met Nov. 20 in Sundance.
After more than two hours of testimony — overwhelmingly in opposition to the bill — the committee voted 8-6 to kill it. Several members who supported the earlier version voted against the current bill.
The 14-member committee heard a litany of misleading, inaccurate and simply wacko claims about how removing the words “husband and wife” from some current laws would decimate heterosexual marriage, insult the Lord, create a generation of orphans, and even lead to society’s approval of bestiality.
That’s not all. Clergy would be forced to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. Women’s restrooms would be required to have urinals and men’s would need tampon dispensers.
Full disclosure: I did not attend the meeting. But I read WyoFile capitol reporter Andrew Graham’s excellent account and listened to the LSO recording of the discussion posted with the story so the public could hear every word.
As recounted by Graham, this is what distraught Campbell County rancher Kim Reed warned the committee:
“What will next constitute a union?” asked Reed. “A man and his sister? A woman and a dog? I hate to think about what comes after this.”
The rancher acted as if Wyoming has been immune to the worst things in the world until Connolly’s bill soiled the state. “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.”
While a few people testified that they appreciate Connolly’s efforts even though they disagree, one blamed the legislator for daring to remove the words men and women from state statutes.
Erik Akola, who recently came to Wyoming from Alaska, said, “I moved here because men were men and women are women. They’re not spouses — so to speak — they’re husbands and wives, mothers and fathers.”
Sitting right next to Connolly, he said he finds her bill offensive. “It’s disgusting to listen to her drivel,” he said.
Instead of gaveling Akola down and warning him that personal attacks are unacceptable under legislative rules, Co-chairman Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) simply interrupted him and said, “That could be improper, sir. Let’s not pick on other people.”
I don’t doubt that some opponents have held their beliefs for a long time. But it’s also indisputable that the Alliance Defending Freedom stirred the pot by preying on fears and distributing talking points.
This is the same Christian right group that infamously defended a Kentucky court clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples, and served as a Wyoming clerk’s counsel in a similar case.
The ADF — identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks such organizations — distributed a so-called “fact” sheet highlighting the ADF’s arguments against the bill.
Case and Co-chairman Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) are co-sponsors of the bill. Did they decide to allow this attack on Connolly’s character and the LGBT community to continue because they didn’t want to be criticized for not letting people speak their minds? If so, it was a poor decision.
People equating homosexuality with pedophilia, incest and beastiality went unchallenged. Would it have been similarly appropriate to allow arguments against the bill that used toxic racial stereotypes? How long would the chair have tolerated arguments that affording women equal protection under the law — as the bill would do — is “disgusting” and an affront to the natural order? After all, the bible says wives should submit to and obey their husbands.
It’s not a hypothetical question. We’ve seen such arguments before. We’ve also seen what an angry mob, incited by misinformation, is capable of.
Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper) said he’d prefer to see the bill tabled until next year’s interim session because budget bills should be the priority in 2018. He said there would not be enough time to fully debate what has become a controversial bill.
Zwonitzer disagreed. He said budget bills are not always being debated on the House and Senate floors and reminded the longest-serving member in the Legislature’s history that many vital issues are decided during budget sessions.
“I am reasonably certain that there are enough legislators, especially in my part of the state, who feel this is a significant issue,” Zwonitzer said, noting that others will sponsor the bill if the committee did not.
Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) supported the bill earlier but voted against it in Sundance. “What’s become abundantly clear is that there’s an extreme lack of understanding about what this bill does and what is the state of the law in Wyoming,” she said.
Clearly many in the audience were aware that the Supreme Court ruled gays can legally marry in the U.S. But some, amazingly, didn’t think that law applied to Wyoming.
Nethercott bought Scott’s argument that a budget session is no time to be focusing on a bill that needs more work, but the majority agreed with Zwonitzer’s call to vote. Two legislators who had voted in favor of the earlier version of Connolly’s bill during the last general session — Rep. Dan Furphy (R-Laramie) and Rep. Jim Blackburn (R-Cheyenne) — changed their minds and opposed it.
Were they actually swayed by the baffling, twisted and ludicrous arguments that many in the audience made, or did they just fold their principals to the loudest voice in the room?
Even more disturbing than most of the testimony were the remarks of Rep. Roy Edwards (R-Gillette), who spent much of the 2017 session fretting over the possibility that transgendered people might actually use a public restroom.
Edwards said the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage was “decided wrong.” He believes that “it’s a state issue and that’s where it ought to stay.”
“I see [same-sex marriage] as changing the moral fabric of this country from the direction it’s always been intended … to a place where I do not want it to end up being.” The result would be anarchy, he predicted, because proponents “for all intents and purposes want to tear down the republic that God has given us.”
Maybe not all of the agitators are from outside Wyoming after all.