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From Sheridan to Casper to Laramie, queer Wyomingites live in different worlds

A rainbow flag flies in the LGBT-friendly Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego, California.
Tony Webster
A rainbow flag flies in the LGBT-friendly Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego, California. Cities in Wyoming vary greatly when it comes to protections for LGBTQ+ residents.

LGBTQ+ protections vary greatly across the state. A handful of cities have non-discrimination ordinances, some have human rights commissions, others report hate crimes to the FBI.

It can be difficult to track all these moving parts, which is why the Human Rights Campaign publishes annual scorecards for more than 500 cities in the United States — including seven cities in Wyoming. 2023 was a monumental year for the Equality State. Both Casper and Laramie saw their scores skyrocket. Other cities, such as Sheridan and Rock Springs, remain low.

These scores can give a sense of where a city stands when it comes to LGBTQ+ protections, but they don’t paint the full picture.

Living in Sheridan rated at 12 out of 100

Shelby Kruse is a journalist who was born and raised in Sheridan, Wyoming — a town of less than 20,000 people. Until recently, she had never really considered moving away.

“I'm comfortable here because it is all I've known,” she said.

Kruse is bisexual, and for most of her life that hasn’t been a significant issue. Her friends and family knew and she didn’t try to hide it, but because she usually dated men, it seldom came up.

That changed when she started dating Mariah Harford, another lifelong Wyomingite who moved to Sheridan six years ago.

“People don't clock me like that unless I'm out with her, and then people look at us weird sometimes,” Kruse said. “It took me a minute to feel comfortable even just casually talking in the office about how I had a girlfriend.”

Kruse was seeing another side of her community for the very first time.

“People here won't admit that they're homophobic or that they have a problem with gay people,” she said. “But they don't really care about gay people, either.”

Interpersonally, people are typically nice to Kruse — but that doesn’t mean they’re accepting.

“They know that I'm queer and they like me as a person,” Kruse said. “So I'm ‘one of the good ones.’”

Her girlfriend has a much different background. Harford is not bi; she’s a lesbian, so her relationships have always stood out in small-town Wyoming.

When Harford arrived in Sheridan, she tried to get a job at a local grocery store. The owner didn’t like the look of her.

“She wouldn't even let me hand her my resume because she was talking to me about how she wouldn't let any ‘ungodly acts’ happen in her establishment,” Harford said. “I was like, oh f****, this is real life.”

That sort of blatant discrimination is still legal in Sheridan because the city has no law against it.

The scorecards 

In fact, most cities in Wyoming don’t. And that’s made clear in the latest Municipality Equality Index from the Human Rights Campaign. The index is released once a year and it evaluates more than 500 cities across the country, noting how well they incorporate the needs of LGBTQ+ residents into their city services.

“The MEI is not about quality of life; it's really about the laws and policies,” said Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign. “Now, do we hope that having laws and policies is going to impact people's quality of life? Of course. But the MEI is not an evaluation of the best places or worst places to live for LGBTQ folks.”

Still, the index sheds some light on how friendly a local government is to its LGBTQ+ residents. Sheridan was one of seven Wyoming cities graded by the Human Rights Campaign. Out of 100 points, Sheridan got a 12.

“I would say it is not hard to get a few points on the municipal equality index,” Oakley said. “So cities that are scoring zero are really making a statement. The cities that are scoring a little bit more than zero are making slightly less of a statement.”

Oakley said the index celebrates those cities making strides in the right direction and gives other cities guidance on what to push for next.

That’s certainly how the city of Casper has been using it.

Casper as a case study

Just a few years ago, Casper’s score was in the single digits. But the city’s been making significant efforts to turn that around and those efforts are paying off. This year, Casper got a 72.

“The incentive really was the MEI score,” said Heidi Rood, who works in human resources for the city of Casper. “Our (city) council at that time did not feel that it fairly represented Casper, and they wanted to do something to change it.”

Rood serves as a liaison to the LGBTQ+ advisory council, which serves as the city’s version of a human rights commission. The group brings recommendations to the city council, and their efforts have boosted Casper’s score.

Casper passed a non-discrimination ordinance last year. The ordinance protects the city’s LGBTQ+ community from discrimination in housing, employment and city services. It also netted Casper 30 points on the municipality equality index.

City Councilor Amber Pollock said it’s great to see the index finally reflect what Casper’s been pushing for over the last five years.

“I feel like this is the first year of this scorecard being published since it's been on my radar that I think we've fully realized where we're at as a community, and it's reflected much more accurately now,” she said.

Moving forward 

Back in Sheridan, Harford and Kruse say their city’s low score sounds pretty accurate too. Harford’s own experience tells her Wyoming towns can do better.

Before she moved to Sheridan, Harford lived in Laramie — and she lived there during an eventful time.

“I feel like I was in Laramie during a massive time for just general human rights,” Harford said. “I was in Laramie when the non-discrimination ordinance got passed, and when the drag troupe started up, and when Laramie Pride started up.”

This year, city staff in Laramie are celebrating an index score of 89 — the highest in Wyoming — and are actively planning to score higher next year. Laramie has a non-discrimination ordinance, as well as liaisons in the police department and city manager’s office. Laramie also has rules in place to prohibit discrimination among contractors who are taking on city projects, and the city council celebrates the queer community with a Pride Month proclamation every year.

Laramie missed some points too. It doesn’t offer its employees transgender-inclusive healthcare benefits and it doesn’t have a human rights commission. At least not yet. City staff will present a proposal for such a commission this winter.

But Harford said she misses Laramie’s queer community, its vibrant Pride Month events and its culture of LGBTQ+ acceptance. Harford said it was a massive culture shock moving from Laramie to Sheridan.

“I can't even … fathom the extent that people would have to go to to get something like that to happen in Sheridan,” Harford said. “I crave Laramie’s community culture, like all of the time.”

The Sheridan couple is looking to move. Kruse said they’re regularly searching online for queer-friendly small towns.

“We’re not city slickers,” Kruse said, teasing Harford. “She’s especially not. She’s too ‘yee-haw.’”

But they would prefer living somewhere that bans discrimination, or where some sort of advisory council could advocate on their behalf.

“Just because I'm not fearing for my life as a queer person every single day doesn't mean that things couldn't be better,” Kruse said. “I shouldn't have to be afraid to step out of my house to be like, ‘We need changes.’”

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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