LGBTQ Wyomingites Persevere Despite Lack Of Statewide Protections

Oct 5, 2018

There are two communities in Wyoming with anti-discrimination ordinances: Jackson and Laramie. Outside city limits and across the rest of the state, LGBTQ individuals who face discrimination aren't protected by the law. But that didn't stop Kassi Willingham from moving back to her hometown of Rock Springs after a few years in Colorado.

"It's always strange having to come out again and again and again," said Willingham. As she settled back into Wyoming and got to know people, they asked if she was married. And when she said yes they would ask about her husband.

"And every time you have to say 'I'm actually married to a woman,"' Willingham said. "And people mull it over for a second. And 99 percent of the time they're super kind. And it's like 'oh cool.'"

But a recent interaction made Willingham think twice about being so forthcoming. She and her wife got married at the courthouse back in February, but decided to save up money before throwing the big party. In early September, they decided it was time to start planning.

"And I got weirdly obsessed. I wanted to have my wedding at this place. It was beautiful. It's like top rated on all of the wedding websites," said Willingham. "I was set on having my wedding there and figuring out how to make it happen."

Willingham called the Diamond Cross Ranch in Teton County and left a message.

"I did mention that we were a same sex couple and I even said 'if that's a problem let us know.'" Later that night Jane Golliher called her back.

"I answered the phone and she was the most cheery sweet sounding woman. And she just kept going on and on about how she was so excited that we loved the ranch," Willingham said.

And then the conversation turned.

"She wouldn't say the words but she said 'I'm so glad you thought to ask us your question.' And I was like 'uh huh.' She said 'unfortunately we just cannot endorse that,'" she said.

Willingham sat there with a lump in her throat.

"I didn't want her to know how much it affected me. And I just said 'oh ok.'"

Willingham said goodbye and hung up the phone.

"It was a two-minute conversation and that was that. We knew they didn't want us," she said.

I reached out to Jane Golliher, but she didn't respond to my calls. Instead, I heard from her son Peter Long, who is head of events for the ranch.

"We very much welcome everyone at the ranch," said Long.

He said he hadn't talked to his mom about what she said to Willingham, but he was adamant that he was speaking on behalf of the Diamond Cross Ranch as a whole. Yet he wasn't aware of any same sex marriages the ranch had hosted in the past.

Straight brides call up anxiously about whether the venue will be available on their date. They don't think about whether their love will be called into question. But for Willingham planning the big day now had a whole other layer of stress.

"We wanted to support Wyoming. We did. But it's too much, and it's too painful to try to vet people for homophobia," Willingham said.

Colorado has a statewide anti-discrimination statute. Willingham will get married there next September.

While a similar statute in Wyoming is getting more attention as a way to boost the economy, it's not a new idea. Over the last 10 years, the same bill has been proposed in the state legislature at least six times, but it hasn't passed.

For LGBTQ Wyomingites that puts more than just wedding venues at stake. There's also the risk of losing employment and housing.

Melinda and Heidi welcome me into their cozy home not far from downtown Cheyenne. Given the stakes, they've asked to go by first names.

The house is everything they wanted: it's dog-friendly, well-cared for and affordable. But Melinda said they aren't sure how their landlord feels about renting to two women in love.

"They honestly seem like cool people and I don't think they would have an issue," she said. "But I just don't want to risk it."

So, they've figured out a plan.

"We have a roommate who is a guy. So, if it ever comes up one of us will just be dating Cole." Melinda follows that statement with a strained laugh.

Thoughts of relocating to a place where they don't feel pressured to actively hide parts of themselves are unrelenting, but Heidi has a good job and Cheyenne is Melinda's hometown so, for now, they're staying put.

From their house, I head just down the street to the public library to meet up with another person creatively dodging homophobia in Wyoming. Izzy only wanted her first name used as well. She's a transgender woman but isn't out at work.

"They believe I am a gay man which is about as much as they can handle," she said.

Izzy said she maintains that front because losing her job would put her entire family at risk.

"My wife is disabled. My daughter is disabled," explained Izzy. "I take care of these people in a lot of important ways and I have to be careful."

Izzy said she ducks out of conversations at work when colleagues start sharing details about their personal lives and she avoids public events. She isolates herself to reduce the risk of facing discrimination or worse: violence.

"People make threats. People say things on the internet. I don't know who's real or not. And I'm not going to find out," she said.

Izzy lamented that for the sake of her safety she isn't doing more to contribute to her hometown of Cheyenne. She misses getting out and volunteering.

"I feel badly for her, her family and the community," said Cathy Connolly. The House Minority Floor Leader has been a tenacious supporter of anti-discrimination legislation year after year. Connolly was the first out state lawmaker - she was first elected in 2008. Izzy's story hit home for her.

"That is not only exhausting, but that it really detracts from one's quality of life," said Connolly. "As well as the ability to, honestly, be all that we can be."

Connolly said that 20 years after the murder of Matthew Shepard, it's time for policymakers to send a message, and put it on the books, that the LGBTQ community and their contributions to Wyoming are valued.