From left: Wyoming state representatives Sara Burlingame, Dan Zwonitzer, and Cathy Connolly, and state rep candidate Chad Banks. Burlingame, Zwonitzer, and Connolly photographed by Donn Bruns for Lifestyle Photography; Banks photo courtesy of Chad Banks.
Wyoming is one of the most conservative states in the union, but with Tuesday’s election its number of out state legislators may increase from three to four — and those lawmakers have big plans.
Two of the three out incumbents in the Wyoming House — lesbian Cathy Connolly and gay man Dan Zwonitzer — are unopposed for reelection, and gay newcomer Chad Banks, also running for a House seat, has no opponent either. Sara Burlingame, a queer woman finishing her first term in the chamber, is being challenged by John Romero-Martinez. Connolly, Banks, and Burlingame are Democrats, and Zwonitzer is a Republican. All four recently gave a joint interview to The Advocate.
Wyoming’s degree of LGBTQ+ representation is fairly remarkable considering that the state isn’t usually considered a friendly place for this population. It’s gone Republican in every presidential election except one since 1952. The GOP has the governorship, a supermajority in both houses of the state legislature, and the entire congressional delegation. Plus, for many LGBTQ+ people, the first thing that springs to mind about Wyoming is one of the most brutal and highest-profile antigay crimes in history, the 1998 murder of college student Matthew Shepard.
But the out lawmakers say they’ve found acceptance, and Zwonitzer says Republicans don’t seem to mind having an out gay man in their ranks, although early on he encountered a little confusion. When he introduced the man who is now his husband to a party leader as his significant other, the leader thought he said “little brother.” Still, Wyoming has more LGBTQ+ members in its legislature than some blue states, such as Delaware, which is expected next week to elect the first two candidates from the LGBTQ+ community who were out from the get-go (one former state lawmaker came out while in office).
One thing that helps, the Wyoming legislators say, is that they’re from what are urban areas by the state’s standards. Zwonitzer and Burlingame represent parts of Cheyenne, the capital and largest city, while Connolly’s district is centered on Laramie, the third largest. Banks is from Rock Springs, the fifth largest, where he was previously a City Council member.
Also, “I do think a lot of Wyoming is ‘live and let live,’” Banks told The Advocate. For instance, he had some trepidation about displaying Pride colors on his website last summer, but he didn’t receive any negative feedback. Wyoming hasn’t passed anti-LGBTQ+ legislation since the 1970s, and Zwonitzer, working within the Republican Party, has helped to block some in recent years.
But now, the politicians sayd, it needs to pass pro-LGBTQ+ laws, which can help Wyoming’s economy in addition to being the right thing to do and moving it toward living up to its nickname of the Equality State (the name reflects its early embrace of women’s rights). It’s one of a very few states with no hate-crimes law at all, let alone one covering crimes motivated by sexual orientation or gender identity. Burlingame is cosponsoring an inclusive hate-crimes law in the upcoming legislative session.
She and her out colleagues point out that the presence of such a law will help draw employers to Wyoming, at least those who care about quality-of-life issues. “It’s a very heavy economic lift if you think of us as a state that kills gay kids,” Burlingame said.
Wyoming’s economy has suffered because of the crash in oil and gas prices, so it needs to attract other businesses. Unlike some moves to boost the economy, passing a hate-crimes law won’t cost a thing.
And in the realm of the right thing to do, it will help people like Colin Monahan and Shannon Lastowski Monahan, a female couple who recently had an incident of harassment in their town, Wapiti, where they relocated from Chicago four years ago. A group of five neighbors came to their door one afternoon, supposedly to talk about a neighborhood covenant. The couple recognized one man as someone who’d been harassing them online, and they asked him to leave, which he eventually did. But the others stayed, and things got ugly, the women told Wyoming Public Media.
“They semi-circled around the stairway and a woman was next to me,” Shannon said. “And Colin asked, ‘Why are you harassing us?’ The woman said, ‘It’s because your kind is not welcome here. You pretend to be a man,’ pointing to Colin, ‘and try to fool people. You are not welcome here, and you need to leave.’”
The women again asked their unwelcome visitors to leave, but the group wouldn’t cooperate, and the couple felt threatened. Finally, Colin called the local sheriff’s department.
“The deputy picked up the line from 911. And Colin explained our situation and that these persons would not leave our property and were surrounding our entrance,” Shannon told the broadcast service. “She held the phone to them and said, ‘You’re not leaving? Do you want to talk to the deputy?’ And it was only then that they very slowly moved away from our property, went in their cars, and left.”
The Monahans said they love their community for the outdoor activities it offers, and they’d experienced no harassment until the past couple of years. They’re still wary, though, and have invested in a security system. They think a hate-crimes law would help deter such incidents, and Burlingame agrees. Unlike opponents of such laws, she says the intention behind a crime matters.
“The law exists to draw distinctions between types of crime. Homicide is only different from manslaughter because of what someone’s intention is,” she told Wyoming Public Media. “So hate-crime [law] just builds into that and says, ‘Hey, if you’re targeting someone because of who they are, who they love, where they go to church, what country they were born in, that’s a specific type of crime.’”
In their interview with The Advocate, the out pols expressed confidence that their presence will boost chances for this type of law. “We have a seat at the table,” Connolly said. “We get things done.”