Wyo. Primaries Spotlight Equality State’s Ongoing Marriage Debate

As you know, the Foundation holds a special place in its heart for Wyoming, the Shepard family’s home and MSF’s official headquarters where Judy Shepard and Susan Burk do much of their important work.

You may not know that we continue to keep a keen eye on Wyoming’s public policy, school systems and especially its Legislature, where high-profile and emotional debates on same-sex marriage have taken place in several of the recent annual sessions.

Wyoming has an 1876 law carrying over from territorial days, which states that marriages that were legal where they were performed are legal in Wyoming. The idea was that back in those early days, as settlers flooded into the newly organized territory, they didn’t need to be burdened with the uncertainty of whether or not their lawful spouses remained such once they crossed the border.

The law’s language didn’t get a lot of attention over the following century and a quarter, with two exceptions. One was a dispute over the validity of common-law marriages; the other was legislation that barred the state of Wyoming from performing polygamous marriages.

But then in the 1990s, as other states started to look at allowing same-sex couples to marry, it became obvious that the plain language of the law would make those marriages performed in other states legal in the Equality State as well. That didn’t sit so well with some of the Wyoming Legislature’s conservative members.

But in the last 16 years as states rushed to outlaw same-sex marriage recognition, wherever those ceremonies might occur, a funny thing happened: Wyoming’s overwhelmingly conservative Legislature bucked the trend and stood up for gay and lesbian couples.

Year after year, bills to change the old statute and/or the Constitution to expressly outlaw recognition of same-sex nuptials were presented, and failed — often by harrowingly narrow margins and after protracted and emotional debates. In 2009, the most far-reaching floor debate ever on the issue occurred on the House floor late in the session.

All eyes were on Rep. Pat Childers, a rock-ribbed conservative from Cody in the north of Wyoming with more than a decade of service under his belt and a thick Texas drawl. Childers stilled the chamber and the gallery by recounting his pride in his daughter, and her same-sex partner, and his belief it was no business of Wyoming’s government to legislate her into second-class citizenship.

Rep. Childers and others impassioned by the manifest unfairness of the proposed marriage ban carried the debate by a surprisingly wide margin and despite subsequent efforts, Wyoming’s nearly unique status as a state that won’t marry same-sex couples itself, but does recognize their marriages, has clung.

On Tuesday Wyoming held its primary elections, which in the deeply Republican state more or less determine who will sit in the next Legislature convening in January. Sadly, Childers was targeted by a hard-right social issues political committee for defeat, and he lost his primary.

We are the poorer for having lost this ally in the next Legislature. His simple plea for equal treatment of his daughter and her partner, should they ever choose to move back to the state, moved many of us and blocked what would have been an unjust and uncharacteristic swipe at “Equal Rights” from a state whose Great Seal is dominated by those two precious words.

There were some bright spots in Tuesdays’ primary on the issue as well. Wyoming’s first openly gay state legislator, Cathy Connolly of Laramie, won again unopposed, and Rep. Sue Wallis, a staunch defender of liberty who hails from a townsite called Recluse, fended off yet another primary challenge fueled in part by her support of equality. Rep. Bob Brechtel of Casper, one of the most anti-marriage-equality members of the Legislature, lost his expensive and controversial bid to rise to the state Senate. Other incumbents who opposed marriage equality lost as well, but sometimes to challengers who are untested on the issue.

But the overall picture is of a Legislature in the politically “reddest” state in the country, which isn’t united in barring marriage equality for its citizens, at least not completely, and not yet.

The Foundation remains committed to supporting pro-equality measures such as civil unions, bullying prevention and employment protections in the 2013 session as it has in the past. We hope those of you who care about Matt and his family’s legacy to their home state will support our continued efforts as well as similar ones in your own states.

Jason Marsden, Executive Director