What It's Like To Grow Up Gay In Wyoming After Matthew Shepard's Murder
If he hadn't been killed in 1998, Matthew Shepard would have turned 41 today. As a gay student in Wyoming, I grew up afraid of the homophobia that contributed to his death — but queer people here are working toward a new future.
I was the one who made our tutus. In many ways, I had no idea what I was doing — I am not a tutu-wearing kind of woman. I was new to activism, and as of this past spring, I had only been openly queer for a few months.
My partner at the time, Q, had heard about the Live and Let Tutu protest on social media. The Facebook event she shared featured a picture of the buffalo from Wyoming’s state flag overlaid with a pink tutu, and the name of the event referenced what’s more or less Wyoming’s state motto: Live and Let Live. The protest was planned in response to Senator Mike Enzi’s comments back in April, when he answered a student’s question about protections for LGBT people in the state during a visit to Greybull High School. “What we need is a little civility between people,” Enzi answered. “We always say that in Wyoming you can be just about anything you want to be, as long as you don’t push it in somebody’s face. I know a guy who wears a tutu and goes to bars on Friday night and is always surprised that he gets in fights. Well, he kind of asks for it a little bit.”
I grew up in Rock Springs, Wyoming, a desert town where outsiders are distrusted because of the transient population of miners and oil field workers, where diversity breeds tension in the desert’s dryness. I didn’t feel safe enough to accept who I was as a gay person until a few years after I left that desert and came to Laramie, Wyoming. But Senator Enzi’s comments threatened that acceptance, and seemed to threaten the safety of the people I love. While his comments didn’t necessarily surprise me given the homophobia I had experienced growing up in Rock Springs, they did make me realize that we had to come together — and keep coming together — to resist the assumption that LGBT people are somehow responsible for their own oppression.
Fortunately, the instructions I found online for tutu-making were fairly easy. But more importantly, when it came to both making the tutus and figuring out how to be my queer self, I had my queer friends and allies — and I had Q.
That night in April, Q came to pick me up for the protest and to put on the tutu I had made for her. My roommate helped us tie on the tutus and fluff them out. Our outfits consisted of jeans and flannel — average Wyoming wear, though elsewhere considered a pretty stereotypical lesbian outfit. Q even had on a cowboy hat.
It was a crisp evening, the sky clear as the sun started to fade. Q and I kept laughing and throwing each other grins, excited — but I was also a little scared.
We soon learned that it is hard to sit in a car when you are wearing an obnoxiously fluffy, glittery, rainbow tutu. It is also hard to walk about in bars crammed with other tutu wearers, because tulle likes to stick to tulle. But before we got to the bars, as Q and I drove downtown, I admitted to her that I was nervous.
This was Laramie, Wyoming. It’s a place for jeans and flannel, a place for cowboys, and still traditionally a place for raising children in straight-marriage families. It is not a place for tutus, and it hasn’t always been a comfortable place for queer people.
“I think I’ll feel a lot safer when we’re with the others,” I told Q when she pulled into a parking spot. “We’ll stand out so much walking alone through downtown.”
“But isn’t that kind of the point?” she asked me. “To feel uncomfortable?”
She was right. That discomfort — besides discounted drinks and the chance to hang out with plenty of other queer people and allies — was the reason we were there.
At the time he made his comments, Senator Enzi seemed to think that outwardly existing in the world as a queer or trans person is enough to excuse violence against queer and trans bodies. Many people at the time criticized him for taking that sort of stance, especially in the state in which Matthew Shepard was murdered.
Matthew was a university student in Laramie, Wyoming, who would have turned 41 years old today. But one October night in 1998, two men tied him to a post on a lonely prairie instead of driving him home, like they’d told him they would. They beat him. They left him, bleeding and alone, in freezing temperatures. People say Matthew was able to look at Laramie’s small-town lights during that night; that he had the sky and stars for company. They also say that the only part of his face free of blood were the tracks made by his tears.
Laramie does not like to claim responsibility for Matthew’s death. It was not Wyoming’s culture of anti-gay sentiment that killed him; rather, he was asking for it. He was too blatantly gay with the wrong people — one of his murderers tried to use the “gay panic” defense.
The running narrative in Wyoming, when Matthew’s death is even acknowledged despite the growing tendency to erase his story and to forget, is to blame it on drugs. According to some accounts, he was a meth user and a drug dealer. Regardless of whether or not drugs played a major role in Matthew’s death, this argument gives people a reason to say he was “only” a meth addict — and claim he should not be a poster child for gay rights. Those who say this, in some way or another, make Matthew complicit in his own murder.
But we are still the town and the state in which a young gay man was beaten to death. We are, perhaps, not free of the blame.
Yet for those of us who live here and are queer, we will wear tutus into bars. We will protest the violence that has happened and can happen in this state. We will carry Matthew’s story on. Though not always by choice.
When I was in high school, a friend asked me to prom. Though I said yes, I didn’t own much in the way of dress clothing, so my mother and I found ourselves in my sister’s old room. I looked at the black, sleeveless dress my sister had worn and said, “I think I might just wear pants.”
My mom wasn’t so into that idea. “But then people will think you are a lesbian,” she said.
Looking back on it now, I know she just wanted to protect me. To keep me safe. But I couldn’t see that so clearly then. So I wore the dress. I wore the kind of shoes that hurt your feet and I drove myself alone to meet with my friend. She was already inside by the time I got there, and I realized she was there with other friends. She was with a date. I didn’t know where there was room for me. So I left early, as alone as I had been when I’d arrived.
When I got home, I barely made it to the bathroom before I started crying. I closed the door and ripped off the dress, leaving it crumpled on the tile. Thankfully I hadn’t compromised myself enough to have put on makeup for the dance, so my face was free from the stains of mascara.
As I stood there naked and shaking, my mother knocked. I tried to be quiet. From behind the door she said, “Dad told me to come check on you. Is everything all right?”
“I’m fine,” I told her.
Senator Enzi later apologized for his initial remarks to the students in Greybull, saying that he “regrets a poor choice of words” and that “no person, including LGBT individuals, should feel unsafe in their community.” He said he was arguing for mutual respect and tolerance among Wyomingites with differing beliefs and values when he repeated Wyoming’s motto to Greybull students: “Live and Let Live.”
But that motto is only comforting to a certain type of Wyomingite. For the rest of us, the motto erases the hard reality we face every day. We are those who, when we walk to meet our partners on a Wyoming school campus, are full of apprehension. Those who, when we say goodbye to each other outside a bar, cannot do more than hug and steal a quick moment of holding hands. We are those who limit our gender expression and carefully tailor our clothing for safety when we are out in public. We are those who think about Matthew Shepard all the time.
Despite Enzi’s apology, the Live and Let Tutu protest spread across the state. And like the good Wyomingites we are, we made our protest against Enzi’s words into a bar crawl. People who wore tutus would, in several bars in Laramie and other towns, get discounted drinks.
Q and I wore our tutus on the night of the protest and walked toward Front Street Tavern. With each step, I grew less afraid, taking comfort in Q’s presence beside me. When we got to the bar, we found it so packed that we couldn’t even enter through the bar door — we had to go in through Sweet Melissa’s door, the restaurant attached to Front Street.
This place, with its rugged wooden floors, western-style bar and decorations, and fantastic mixed drinks, is one of the safest for the LGBT community.
As we moved from bar to bar, enjoying discounted drinks and the safety of allies and other members of our community, it was like warmth against the chill of a lonely Wyoming night. We were packed in together and surrounded by those who protested, with those who were fighting with us to make Wyoming a safer place for queerness, with stereotypical “cowboy” Wyoming men alongside queer individuals and queer couples. That night, listening to speeches by queer and trans advocates, we were determined that what had happened to Matthew would not happen to any of us.
For a long time, there was still glitter in my room and Q’s car from our tutus.
A picture of Q and me at the protest went viral. It captured us in our tutus and our flannel, and her with her cowboy hat. When I first saw the picture and as the articles that kept posting it, I felt a slight rush of fame. Then, I couldn’t help but feel glad for the fact that my face is not in the picture and that Q isn’t easily recognizable. To hide is an old reflex of mine, and for Q, who has been misgendered, confronted in women’s restrooms, and forced to mitigate her gender expression for the sake of her safety.
It wasn’t until after the protest that this policing of gender has come to more directly impact me. A little over a month after Live and Let Tutu, I finally cut my hair. While the protest gave me the courage to realize I simply should not have to wait any more, I have experienced fear and discrimination in a different way.
I had been wanting to cut my hair this short since high school, but my hairdresser initially turned me away from it. When June and Pride Month came, though, I cut it in a more masculine version of a pixie cut.
“You better not cry,” my hairdresser said before we started.
I almost did. Even though I’m now labeled gender-nonconforming, even though I’m also afraid to use the women’s restroom, it was worth it — because now, looking in the mirror, I recognize her. I see that I am closer to who I am supposed to be.
This past June also marked Laramie’s first-ever pride celebration — Laramie PrideFest. It was nearly a week for the LGBT community to gather, network, celebrate, and remember those we have lost along the way toward progress. It was a beautiful balance between celebrating how far we’ve come and acknowledging that we still have progress to make.
PrideFest kicked off on Tuesday, June 20, with a pride proclamation, where the mayor read the proclamation to declare the event. For Wyoming, it was a huge amount of public recognition for the queer community. After a Drag Story Hour for kids at the local library and a pride potluck in one of Laramie’s parks, the last pride event was a vigil in honor of Matthew Shepard. We gathered on the university’s campus.
I can’t help but think about how my own story could have easily reflected Matthew’s. But all of the work done in his name has meant that I can now, at least in Laramie, live fairly openly as I love whom I love. I am still afraid sometimes, but as a queer kid from Wyoming, Matthew has meant everything to me.
In my life, I do know I am loved. When I came out to my parents, my mom said, “I am so glad you will finally get the chance to know what love is.” My dad has since said he can’t believe how much happier I’ve been. I’m incredibly grateful. But “Live and Let Live” is still invoked by Wyomingites to police other people’s differences. Nineteen years ago, Matthew Shepard was left alone to die in the freezing Laramie night — and even though a lot has changed since then, we still live in a world where my girlfriend’s family won’t accept her for who she is while mine tells me, “We love you. No matter what.”
During Matthew’s vigil, as speeches were given by queer, transgender, and genderqueer people, and as we cried and fell into one another’s arms, I thought of the love still denied to us by ourselves, by our families, and by society. But Laramie is more than this hate crime. Matthew Shepard’s birthday today helps me remember that — because his birthday should be a celebration of who he was, rather than who he wasn’t allowed to be. As one of the speakers pointed out during PrideFest: Matthew should have been there. ●