Laramie, Wyoming bears a painful heritage when it comes to gay rights for its residents. Yet it recently hosted its first Pink Prom – a prom for the LGBTQ community and their allies – and participated in the international staging of Standing on Ceremony, plays about marriage equality. Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov reports on the changing attitudes.
IRINA ZHOROV: In late October, a bunch of people attended prom with the date of their choice and danced.
This shouldn’t really be significant, but it was because it was Pink Prom and it happened in Laramie, a town still scarred by the legacy of Matthew Shepard’s murder.
Brody Tate, originally from Evanston and now a student at University of Wyoming, stood in line to get his picture taken with his date. Tate said that the Pink Prom was better than his high school’s prom.
BRODY TATE: I went to my own proms and they were never fun and we weren’t allowed to take same sex dates, like they weren’t approved because you had to approve it through the administration and they never allowed it so I never got to take who I wanted to take to prom.
ZHOROV: Tate was beaming.
TATE: It’s kind of - well, not to steal their theme from them – but it’s kind of like a fairy tale. Like you get to do something you never thought you could do because it’s sort of been taken away from all of us, or most of us anyway, so it’s kind of like a happy dream come true.
ZHOROV: Jim Osborn, Assistant to the Associate Vice President at the University of Wyoming made a speech at the prom marking its significance.
JIM OSBORN: Dance because you live in a place, in the middle of nowhere, in the frozen tundra of the north, where an event like this goes on, whether the rest of the world would believe it, or not.
ZHOROV: The world outside of Laramie has long seen the town, and the state, as a terrible place for people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Queer.
Benjamin Roberts, a gay Wyoming native who recently moved to Portland, Oregon, said that that reputation persists outside of town.
BENJAMIN ROBERTS: I always get, oh, you’re gay and you’re from Laramie, that must’ve been horrible. And I get that on a fairly regular basis.
ZHOROV: But, says Roberts, Laramie is a pretty nice town. He has been harassed a few times, but…
ROBERTS: Most of the time it was something that I sort of, I guess, not to say that it was justified, but I would be like wearing daisy dukes and someone would yell something like, “Nice daisy dukes.”
ZHOROV: Roberts was ten when Shepard was killed so he’s not sure how different the town actually is. But Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, and also a gay Wyoming native, says Wyomingites tend to have a live and let live attitude.
JASON MARSDEN: Wyoming people don’t actually want to edit your life to conform to their ideological or religious or moral belief.
ZHOROV: Much of Laramie’s negative reputation was imposed by the media rush after Shepard’s murder. But it’s not now, and wasn’t then, too different from the rest of America.
MARSDEN: Wyoming’s on the same journey that the whole country is on, and the whole world is on. Watching social attitudes evolve, you know, that’s a long term project.
ZHOROV: Marsden balked when I asked if Laramie should come with some sort of disclaimer for newcomers.
MARSDEN: I don’t mean to be glib, but if I had a gay friend who was thinking about moving to Laramie, I think the first this I’d ask is, “How do you handle severe weather in the winter time?”
ZHOROV: Lauren Trembath – Neuberger moved to Wyoming five months ago from Iowa, with her wife. She says that while Laramie’s reputation certainly came to mind, she was not very afraid of social persecution.
LAUREN TREMBATH: Mostly what I ended up being concerned about was the legality. Like the fact that I’m married in Iowa, and I’m…I mean I’m married still…but legally it has little effect here.
ZHOROV: Last legislative session the state senate voted down a bill that would have prevented the courts from recognizing same-sex marriages from other states. That means that Wyoming recognizes marriages like Trembath – Neuberger’s, but she says there aren’t any formal benefits, like getting on her wife’s insurance.
Socially, Laramie isn’t perfect either.
TREMBATH: Like there’s no gay bar…I don’t know why that seems important, but it does, to like have a place. Even like a coffee ship that has, like, gay things, something like that, and able to be seen and is not special, like not a parade or pride or something like that, but something that is a part of the community.
ZHOROV: And there’s also the future.
TREMBATH: If we continue to live here, and like having children here…like, at home, both of our names would be on the birth certificate of a child, we wouldn’t have to do a second parent adoption or anything like that. In terms of thinking more long term, if we stay here, that would be something we’re concerned about.
ZHOROV: But she and many others don’t think it’s particularly different or worse than other towns.
TREMBATH: If anything, it’s better because there is a conversation that’s going on and there’s been an awareness of, like, the fact that there was a problem.
ZHOROV: For Wyoming Public Radio I’m Irina Zhorov.