The Best Offense

By Advocate Contributors

Originally published on Advocate.com April 12 2011 4:00 AM ET

 Wyoming, with a republican governor and a legislature with overwhelming GOP majorities in both houses, is proving more and more that it’s deserving of its official nickname — the Equality State.

Two antigay proposals recently failed there — a bill to constitutionally ban gay marriage died in the house in February, and legislation prohibiting Wyoming from recognizing same-sex marriages performed outside the state perished in the senate in March. That came after a similar effort to ban recognition of outside gay marriages failed in 2007, and another attempt at constitutionally banning marriage equality fell apart in 2009.

Jason Marsden, the executive director of the Denver-based Matthew Shepard Foundation and a former lobbyist in the capital of Cheyenne, says homophobic legislation is often no match for the state’s libertarianism.

“Philosophically, Wyoming politics is the ‘mind your own business, small government’ type of conservatism,” Marsden says. During the debate over the marriage recognition bill, “there were provisions in the state constitution that some of the senior Republican senators noted — one says absolute power over free men is nowhere in a republic. That sort of guarantee doesn’t match up with legislation taking away rights.”

Marsden says the victories of February and March were also aided by a powerful defense from local civil rights groups.

“This was the most galvanizing, movement-building opportunity for the LGBT community in Wyoming — ever,” Marsden says, congratulating groups such as Wyoming Equality. “There has never been so many turn out to testify at committee hearings or such an onslaught of pro-gay feedback from the citizens to their legislators — letters to the editors, rallies on the capitol steps — it was unprecedented.”

While Matthew Shepard’s name always looms large over any Wyoming gay rights battle, LGBT activists know that bringing Shepard’s name into the debate will often backfire. Marsden says the topic of Shepard is “very emotional and can cause people who oppose gay rights to get very angry. They feel it’s apple and oranges; they’ll say, ‘That was a hate crime, this is defining marriage.’”

Knowing how to effectively speak to Wyoming’s legislature, which took a sharp right turn in the 2010 election, is imperative in maintaining these defensive victories, Marsden says. Still, the current momentum not only emboldens local gay rights leaders, it has an effect on antigay legislators.

“The fact that Wyoming has debated this and refused to change the law several times now, it sends a message that this kind of legislation will be especially difficult to get through,” Marsden says.