By Marit Gookin
Lander Journal Via Wyoming News Exchange 

Lander proclaims stance against discrimination


June 15, 2023

LANDER — By Oakley Boycott’s count, 145 people showed up at this past Tuesday’s city council meeting in Lander. People crowded into the room until they couldn’t anymore; so many were in attendance that even with people sitting on the floor and standing against the walls, many were left peering into the room from the hallway, unable to even get inside of the chambers.

The issue at hand? Pride events in Lander, and more specifically, the city’s annual Pride (now changed to an anti-discrimination) proclamation.

“We don’t hate anyone … It is those who oppose us who are loud,” Lander resident Karen Wetzel told the council. “We are not against Wind River Pride or any other organizations if they want to hold vulgar, obscene events in a private setting.”

Lander has issued a Pride proclamation for the past four years, and, as noted at the city council meeting by Debra East and Amy Skinner, many members of the community have a long history of support for its LGBTQ+ members.

This year, city hall received a wide variety of letters and emails from concerned citizens, both in support of and opposition to a proclamation.

Instead of issuing a Pride proclamation as it has for several years now, at Tuesday’s city council meeting a broader, vaguer anti-discrimination proclamation – one with no mention of Pride – was made.

“The month of June has been historically designated as a month which celebrates everyone’s right to live without fear of prejudice, discrimination, violence, or hatred based on their ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, class, religious beliefs, disability, or other lived experiences,” reads the proclamation. “The city of Lander is committed to upholding the rights of all to gather peaceably in public places, as enshrined in our First Amendment, and acknowledges the continued need for education and awareness to end discrimination and prejudice.”

The seven people who spoke to the council in support of the anti-discrimination proclamation all thanked city leaders for making the proclamation, noting its importance to them. Two others opposed it.

“I am not a hater. I actually feel compassion for those who follow the LGBT et cetera road. It’s based on lies that will result in dangerous health choices, future emptiness and loneliness, physical and emotional pain and destructive surgeries,” Joan Jones told the council. “Whatever sexual satisfaction and camaraderie these people are experiencing now, they should be aware that it is fleeting.”

Jones’ concerns about the well-being of LGBTQ+ citizens were later echoed by Central Wyoming College professor and clinical psychologist Joseph Fountain, although he took a different perspective on the issue.

“It is very important to me and vital as a combat veteran, as somebody who was in public service for 25 years – also somebody who is a licensed clinical psychologist – to reinforce that we as a community are stronger when we tolerate each other,” he remarked. “We here in Lander are very, very grateful for this proclamation that reinforces that we’re not going to let happen what happened in the Pulse nightclub, when many, many people were killed based on hate. We’re not going to let what happened in Denver, outside of Denver, last year, happen here – because we believe that everyone, regardless of their opinions, deserves a safe place to be who they are.

“And it goes beyond those individual acts of violence,” he added. “Everything that we know, all of the research shows, that those who are questioning their gender identity, those who in their adolescence develop feelings of sexual orientation that are inconsistent with their family’s values, they suffer rates of suicide that are much, much higher than the general population.”

The issues brought before Lander’s council echo statewide trends.

In 2023, at least nine bills were drafted by the Wyoming legislators which could be described as anti-LGBTQ+ – although only one has passed, breaking a long Wyoming legislative tradition of rejecting anti-LGBTQ+ bills – and more could be interpreted as having anti-LGBTQ+ implications.

Wyoming is also one of just 19 states that does not have any state laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Jones and Wetzel both emphasized that they had no wish to discriminate against their LGBTQ+ neighbors, but were instead concerned about their own Christian values and the impact of witnessing LGBTQ+ events on young children.

Wetzel pointed to several laws concerning public decency and exposing children to obscenity; Jones had similar complaints.

“I realize people are mostly free to engage in whatever sexual behaviors they want to in the privacy of their own bedroom. However, when they start pushing it onto innocent children, the line is drawn. That is grooming. Drag shows are not for children. Personally, I don’t think they’re acceptable anywhere – but if they must, keep it in the privacy of the bedroom, or in strip clubs,” Jones said.

“It seems as if outsiders are being brought in to push this agenda, and to indoctrinate our children. Lander used to be such a wonderful place to raise children, but we’re being infiltrated,” she added.

In his comments to the council, Fountain expressed that he finds anti-LGBTQ+ views to be in opposition to his own values as both a Christian and an American.

“Opinions of hate that are clothed in religion and religious beliefs – that just violates everything that most of us understand about the Christian ethic. I’m a longtime Catholic, and to espouse hate or intolerance in the cloak of religion … that violates what this country stands for,” he said.

Wetzel and Pastor Philip Strong of the Grace Reformed Fellowship church both also spoke to the county commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday, stating that they feel Pride events are illegal and a question of public safety.

“Your job is not to appease people but to uphold public decency laws,” Pastor Strong commented. Strong and Wetzel were there to voice their opposition to the Pride film screening at the Riverton Branch Library on Wednesday evening, as well as Pride events in the county generally.

“You are duty-bound. Speaking as a pastor, I have grandchildren and congregation members … [There are] gay pride flags on the White House,” he said. “We have an enemy, they want control. If we don’t stop this you won’t recognize America.”

Speaking to the Lander City Council on Tuesday evening, Annelise Wright challenged the notion that Pride events present a particular threat to children.

“I also find it really hard to hear outright lies being told about our community, truly. It’s hard to sit in a space that’s supposed to be non-partisan, and for speech to be allowed to happen that’s false,” she told the council. “I am a person who experienced grooming as a child, and I did not experience that in a queer community, I experienced that in a church setting. And so I just – I don’t want to say that to say that every church has that experience, but that that can happen literally anywhere, and that it’s not just the LGBTQIA+ community that like fosters that, because it’s not. That is where I have found people who support me as a human, and who see me as a human, and who expect nothing other than me just being myself.”

“I was born and raised in Fremont County, and I am a member of the LGBTQ2S+ community. I never saw any public support of this community until I was an adult, and so I guess we can say it wasn’t exposure to Pride events or anything like that that made me the way that I am,” observed Fiadh Vincent. “I would like to say that in my experience, in my life, indoctrination in the truest form of the word did come from churches, and people who really truly did go out of their way to try to mold how I thought about myself and other people as a child. That did make me vulnerable to predators as I grew up, so I would like to reaffirm what Annelise said … that is a problem in many communities any time there is a power imbalance. Those who choose to fearmonger and sexualize our community must learn to live with the visibility and freedoms that we have fought for over the last several decades. When we rose to pledge allegiance to the flag, it says justice for all. That means we’re allowed to be in public, we’re allowed to use our freedom of speech.”

“Drag specifically is a characterization of self-expression,” said Ari Kamil. They explained that drag is not inherently sexual.

This sentiment was echoed by council member John Larsen in a later interview; Larsen said that he had seen photos of last year’s drag event, and while there was more skin on display that he personally would care to expose, it didn’t seem to qualify as indecent exposure.

“It’s nothing different – you could go to the city swimming pool or any of the lakes around Fremont County and see people in their bathing suits,” he remarked. “If people are offended by the drag show, they don’t have to watch it … Is there bad actors out there? I guarantee there are … There’s crappy people all over, and I don’t think that one group has the market cornered on that.”

Larsen urged people to stay safe by paying attention to who they were spending time with, and judging people based on their individual character rather than their group affiliation.

Kirbie Despain, a mother of three who drove from Riverton to attend the city council meeting, spoke about the importance of teaching her children to be kind to others.

“I have instilled in them basically to be kind. And my biggest thing that I wanted to say here today is that the amount of people that speak very rudely about LGBTQIA+ members is really bad, it’s really hard to hear. I struggle with, as a mother, people telling me that if I let my children be a part of these things that I’m doing them a disservice. And I think the opposite. I think as a mother, I am teaching them to love everybody.

“My kids know what equality means,” Despain explained. “One of the big things that my eight-year-old told me the other day was that ‘Well, I don’t understand why everyone has such a problem with people who aren’t like them.’ And that’s something that I think everyone really needs to think about. What is the problem with someone being different?”

Jones told the council that she believes that Pride events could be a potential threat to democracy.

“What does a Pride float displaying drag queens have anything to do with the founding of our great country? The objective seems to be to destroy patriotism and all that is good and wholesome. The goal is the destruction of the family and freedom. It will increase moral decay and turn into total totalitarianism. We already have laws against discrimination. This agenda is more than that. It’s a militant effort to indoctrinate our children and destroy our liberty,” she said.

Community members had also been reaching out to Lander council members, the Riverton Branch Library and other organizations prior to the meeting. Wright, who is a member of Wind River Pride, commented in a later interview that while in years past, Wind River Pride has received emails expressing negative sentiments about its events, this year the organization hasn’t received any – “but everyone we’ve partnered with has.”

Two Lander City Council members independently confirmed that the communication they’ve had from constituents was broadly similar to the comments made at the council meeting.

In 2018, the year the Lander Episcopal Church was vandalized with homophobic graffiti, the national crime database maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) records no hate crimes in Wyoming whatsoever.

Hate crimes across the board are notably under-reported nationwide; not all law enforcement agencies report their statistics to the FBI, and not all of those that do identify hate crimes in those statistics.

That the database records four cases of crimes committed against people based on their sexual orientation in 2021 is likely due to increased reporting from Wyoming law enforcement agencies.

Based on national trends, it is unlikely that this figure is an accurate reflection of how many crimes in the state of Wyoming are actually motivated by homophobia, transphobia, and other anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments.

Due to changes in reporting, most states’ statistics concerning hate crimes showed a decrease between 2020 and 2021, but Wyoming’s actually increased in spite of the reporting changes.

“It’s deeply important that we set a tone for the community we want Lander to be, which is welcoming and inclusive,” commented council member Julia Stuble in a later interview. “Lander is stronger, both economically and socially,” when it embraces its diversity.

Most council members appeared to similarly feel positive about the proclamation, with only Larsen noting an objection.

He said that the city making the proclamation de-emphasized the importance of existing state and federal anti-discrimination legislation, and said in a later interview that “those rights are already protected … It does take away from them if you’re constantly reaffirming … We’ve got enough hate and discontent going on all by itself without having to light a fire.”

While Wright is glad the city council made the anti-discrimination proclamation, she remarked in a later interview that she was disappointed that it hadn’t also made a Pride proclamation. “Having a Pride-specific proclamation would’ve been ideal … It’s disappointing that we had that for four years and then almost took a step away from it,” she said.

Wright believes that an anti-discrimination proclamation that vocalizes the city’s support for all of its vulnerable citizens is important, but that the city could make such a proclamation without getting rid of its annual Pride proclamation.

“Call Pride month what it is, and do a non-discrimination proclamation either alongside it or at another time altogether … I think city council members do mean well, I think the mayor means well, I really do – but I think we have some room to grow,” she said.

Wright and Wind River Pride don’t plan on making any changes to their June events.

Weather permitting, the drag show was scheduled to take place as planned in Jaycee Park on Saturday, and Lander’s annual Pride picnic in City Park slated for Sunday, just as it has for over a decade.

Those who oppose the events may decide to simply stay away, as Larsen advised, or may show up to protest them, as is their right as Americans so long as they remain peaceful. Either way, the documentary film crew scheduled to be at the picnic would surely capture it all for posterity.

This story was published on June 17, 2023.


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