Casper is the fourth city to pass local law to combat discrimination in lieu of state protections
Leo Smiley attended Pride Night at The Void in downtown Casper. A local musician played a Dolly Parton song in a pool of rainbow light. People watched, ate and drank.
“It is my favorite safe place in the entire state,” Smiley said.
This week, Smiley and the venue are celebrating the passage of a nondiscrimination ordinance that passed the Casper City Council 8-1.
“I really feel like I can dress however I want. I can be gendered correctly, I can use my preferred bathroom. I can bring my friends and not worry about them being uncomfortable or outed,” he said.
Seth Hollier is owner of the venue, which opened about a year ago. He said it's important to have a space that's safe and friendly to the LGBTQ+community in Casper.
“I think we're probably one of the first that's made it a point to, as a venue and as a business, highlight the LGBT +community and make sure that there's a consistent event for them that they can look forward to on a monthly basis,” Hollier said.
Casper is joining a handful of towns in Wyoming with a nondiscrimination ordinance. Without a statewide hate crime bill or non discrimination bill, the ordinance brings local protections to the towns rural queer community.
The ordinance was a suggestion from Casper’s LGBTQ +advisory council. That suggestion was originally made 18 months ago.
Gage Williams, chair of the Casper LGBTQ+ advisory council and the resource director for Casper Pride, said while there are federal protections that address issues of discrimination, local non discrimination polices can work faster.
Williams used the example of filing a housing discrimination complaint with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
“If you're going to file with HUD, it could take months, could take years for you to see anything,” he said.
Now, the city’s municipal court would most likely handle a case like that. Ideally, the process could be quicker. The law also includes protections on race, religion, national origin, disability status as well as sexual orientation and gender identity.
Amber Pollock, a member of the Casper City Council, said the law gives the local courts more ability to address issues of discrimination.
“It would basically be treated like any other crime in our statute, where there would be an investigation by the police department, they would gather evidence to see if there was anything that was able to be prosecuted,” Pollock said.
She said this ordinance addresses issues relating to housing and employment discrimination but also violent crime. Similar to a law that was passed in Cheyenne recently.
“While that process was taking place, Cheyenne went a little bit of a different route. And they passed a bias crime ordinance. And that, for me, was a cue that perhaps we should just attend to both of these issues,” she said.
Casper Pride’s Gage Williams said it was important for the council to make the legislation representative of more than just the LGBTQ + community.
“We decided to include everybody in not just sexual orientation and gender identity, because it everybody needs to be protected, and especially in a state with no hate crime legislation,” he said.
In the last couple weeks, there have been multiple incidents in our region involving the LGBTQ +community. Including at the University of Wyoming where a trans student was harassed by a community member intentionally misgendering them.
And the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs this fall that killed 5 people. Williams said safety has always been at the forefront of his mind ever since the Pulse shooting in 2016 that left 49 dead at a LGBTQ + night club in Florida.
“The last thing we want to do is for our community to feel unsafe at our own events. And you know, that's kind of where the ordinance came in, is, we don't want you to feel unsafe in your own community. But we definitely don't want you to feel unsafe in our own events,” he said.
Casper’s new law is unique because many of the other Wyoming towns that have passed similar laws just deal with employment and housing discrimination or violent crimes.
It makes harsher punishments available to courts if discrimination was found to be a factor during criminal investigation.
Casper City Council member Pollock said with the legislative session coming up it's important for allies to be active in their communities throughout Wyoming.
“So I would just encourage folks to get with some of the organizations that are hoping to advocate for the community. And make sure you're connected with them, make sure you're supporting them, and make sure you're not just supporting behind the scenes,” Pollock said.
Leo Smiley at pride night agrees. He’s a trans man who is happy that Casper passed this legislation but said there’s more work to be done in the Cowboy State to protect LGBTQ + citizens.
The upcoming legislative session will likely see bills involving LGBTQ + community. It starts Jan. 10.
“It really is a small world, here in Wyoming. And I think it's important that we have each other's backs,” he said.