CHEYENNE, Wyo. — For years, Democratic lawmakers in Wyoming have floated bills aimed at preventing discrimination against gays and lesbians but have found little support. Now, they seem to have gained some — among Republican lawmakers.
It remains to be seen whether gay rights supporters in the overwhelmingly Republican Wyoming Legislature can pass measures that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, create civil unions or even gay marriage.
So far, nine of the legislature's 78 Republicans have signed on as co-sponsors of the various bills. Eight of the Legislature's 12 Democrats are on board with at least one of the bills. Committee hearings on two of the bills were scheduled for Monday.
For gay rights advocates, getting the support they already have received feels like a big moment. The state has a long tradition of libertarian-tinted conservatism, yet it's also where gay college student Matthew Shepard was killed more than a decade ago.
"When I really started seeing who the sponsors were, I started having a big smile on my face," said Rev. Dee Lundberg, a minister at the United Church of Christ in Casper, who married her partner in her church two years ago.
The gay rights bills will face opposition. WyWatch Family Action, a group that has opposed past gay rights measures, plans to muster its members to oppose the bills. Wally Rayl, a volunteer lobbyist with the group, said opposition is "naturally based."
"In our Declaration of Independence, we refer to nature and nature's law, and God's creation," Rayl said. "Nature's law is that a family is put together to reproduce. Well, two of the same sex cannot reproduce."
Lundberg said she's in disbelief about the amount of time society has spent on the same-sex marriage issue, which she said she believes should be a private decision.
"We live in a state that has this high value on not having the government tell them how to run their lives," she said.
Rep. Sue Wallis, R-Recluse, has signed on as a co-sponsor on all three bills.
Wallis said she believes the issue underscores some divisions within the Republican Party. She said some people in the party are conservative and don't want the government to interfere in their businesses, communities or families.
Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, is sponsoring the bill for same-sex marriage. A lesbian, Connolly also has a fallback measure to recognize same-sex civil unions, a bill she believes has a better chance of passing.
"I absolutely think that there's been a change of attitude, that the time is right, that people truly believe that this is the Equality State," she said.
In addition to carrying tax and pension benefits, Lundberg noted that legalizing same-sex marriage would allow couples to make medical decisions and have the right to visit each other in the hospital.
Outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation also would give people peace of mind and eliminate the "fear factor," she said. She said there would also be emotional benefits for same-sex couples who are afraid to talk about their lives.
"You know, a lot of these people have kids," Lundberg said. "They want to not have to fear losing their jobs, or livelihoods or housing. It's not just for them, it's for their families. There are children involved in this and we have to remember that."
Wyoming gained attention in 1998 when Shepard, a slender, 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was robbed, fatally beaten and tied to a fence by two men he met in a bar in Laramie. Police said the killers attacked him because he was gay.
Just two years ago, some Wyoming lawmakers, including the then-House speaker, filed, during a busy legislative session, legal papers asking the state Supreme Court not to consider a divorce case involving two Wyoming women who were married in Canada.
The lawmakers said they were concerned court action would serve as a back-handed recognition of same-sex marriage. The court ignored them, letting the couple divorce.
More recently, the mood in the nation has shifted on gay rights. States have been increasingly accepting of civil unions or gay marriage. Last week, Rhode Island moved a step closer to joining nine states and the District of Columbia to allow gay and lesbians to wed.
President Barack Obama voiced his support for gay marriage in 2012 and this month in his inaugural address equated the Stonewall gay-rights riots of 1969 with the struggles on behalf of blacks and women throughout the nation's history.
Jeran Artery, chairman of Wyoming Equality, a group that lobbies on behalf of gays and lesbians, said there's a change in the country. Whatever the Legislature does on the gay marriage "dream bill," Artery said he's pleased at increasing GOP support.
"The message it sends is we're moving away from viewing this as a Democrat or Republican type thing," he said. "We're moving toward viewing it as right versus wrong, and that's a big step."