How A Non-Discrimination Law Could Change Wyoming's Reputation And Economy

Oct 5, 2018

In order to convince tech companies to set up shop in Wyoming, some believe there needs to be a statewide anti-discrimination law on the books. That would change state law to provide protections to LGBTQ people that others already have. Supporters say such a law will resolve a perception problem the state has had since the murder of Matthew Shepard.

On a busy corner in downtown Cheyenne, there were a few of the things you would expect to find in Wyoming. Like a horse-drawn carriage, and historic buildings. Inside one of them, there was an old-fashioned, manually operated brass elevator. On the fourth floor, there were black and white photographs of old Wyoming. But maybe not of things you would expect.

"This is a lesbian wedding from the 1930s," said Burlingame, describing one of the photos.

She is the executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Wyoming Equality. The photos are hanging up in her corner office. Burlingame said the photos are meant to serve as a reminder.

"We've always been here," she said.

We meaning queer people and here meaning Wyoming. Burlingame moved to the state 20 years ago this fall.

"We moved here in August," Burlingame said. "And Matthew's body was found in October."

Matthew Shepard was a gay student at the University of Wyoming in 1998 when he was beaten and tortured outside of Laramie. He died a few days later from severe head injuries.

"Folks think about Wyoming and they think about Matthew Shepard's murder," said Burlingame. "And that is just a reality."

But Burlingame said she sees this perception as an opportunity. Like a lot of states, Wyoming doesn't have statewide protections for LGBTQ people, such as making it illegal to discriminate in housing, employment, and public services based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Burlingame said if Wyoming got a law on the books, it would be a big selling point for the state.

"When you subvert someone's expectations, people pay attention," she said.

And Wyoming needs a selling point right now. After its most recent energy bust, the state lost 25,000 jobs. A group called ENDOW is working to diversify the state's economy. One of the things they're looking at is more tech jobs.

"The beautiful thing about the tech industry is it's not going away," said Eric Trowbridge.

He is the founder of the Array School of Technology and Design in Cheyenne. He said there's a reason cities are doing whatever they can to attract companies like Amazon and Google.

"What industry has not yet been touched by technology? So if you're able to create a technology hub, you're literally putting this beating heart of people spewing ideas into every single industry--agriculture, military, retail," said Trowbridge.

But in order for that to happen, Trowbridge said the state needs to work on its reputation because "people know Wyoming for killing gays."

Trowbridge, who is from Cheyenne, came face to face with this when he established his school in 2014 and was trying to hire instructors. He said his top candidate pick was someone he had worked with during his time at Apple.

"I was like 'gosh, if I can get this guy from New York City to move to Cheyenne and run this school, that would be amazing,'" he said. "So I started chatting with him, and then when he started getting serious about it, I remember calling him up and the first question out of his mouth was, 'What's the LGBTQ community like in Wyoming?'"

Trowbridge wasn't able to convince the candidate to move here. And that was when he connected with Wyoming Equality. Since then, the two organizations have formed an alliance. Sara Burlingame said they're trying to help people see things from an economic point of view.

"I think folks need to connect with economic reality, that if we don't pass non-discrimination," said Burlingame, "we're leaving money on the table."

Burlingame explained if Wyoming gets a non-discrimination law on the books, not only would that reaffirm and welcome LGBTQ people, it would also make Wyoming stand out to the tech industry.

In other words--if you pass it, jobs will come.

But not everybody sees things this way, including Wyoming State Representative Bunky Loucks, who said, "I don't want to give ammunition for people to sue people over things that might be perceived, might be real or not."

And this is how a lot of the legislature sees a non-discrimination law--just another regulation for small business owners. Loucks said Wyoming already comes across as friendly to businesses, thanks to its low cost of living and taxation. He also said Wyoming is friendly to queer people.

"I've heard from some of the LGBT themselves, they say that it's not. I just don't buy into that," said Loucks.

But Wyoming Equality's Sara Burlingame respectfully disagreed and said outside the state, LGBTQ people have a negative perception that has to be changed.

"People think they already know us," said Burlingame. "So our job is tell them a new story and tell them, 'here's what you don't understand about Wyoming, and here's why you would be lucky to live in Wyoming and to have your home and your family and your work be here.'"

The group put together by Governor Matt Mead to diversify the state's economy has identified a non-discrimination law as a key recommendation if the state wants to appear open for business.