Growing up in the tiny town of Wheatland, Wyo., Jeran Artery was living deep inside the social closet when he sat in the pew on Sundays, listening to his preacher uncle expound on the moral wrongs of homosexuality.
“I grew up thinking everything in my heart and mind was going to send me to hell,” he said.
The 1998 murder of gay university student Matthew Shepard just outside Laramie became a rallying cry for the gay rights movement, but only drove Artery deeper into his closet.
This week, however, there was an event to celebrate: The Laramie City Council became the first municipality in the state to approve protections for gays in housing and in the workplace.
The scope of the victory wasn’t lost on Artery, who announced to his family eight years ago that he was gay. He is now chairman of the nonprofit group Wyoming Equality.
Like a lot of gays and lesbians in the sprawling conservative state of just 600,000 residents, he wondered why this moment had taken so long.
“That is what has been so frustrating for all of us on the front lines in Wyoming,” he said. “But it’s better late than never. It’s a great day in Wyoming to actually see Laramie do this. And how appropriate that it took place at the site of Matthew Shepard’s murder.”
The council voted 7 to 2 on Wednesday to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment and access to public facilities such as restaurants.
In the nearly 17 years since Shepard’s death, Congress passed hate crime legislation bearing his name and a new conversation began nationwide about the treatment of gays.
But Wyoming has been slow to keep pace. For years, advocates like Artery have tried to persuade the Legislature to pass new protection laws.
Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican, went to court last year to defend the state’s gay marriage ban before federal court rulings in other states blocked Wyoming from further action.
This year, several state lawmakers filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, urging that it reject same-sex marriage on the grounds that it violates other citizens’ free-speech rights. (The high court is expected to rule in June.)
The Wyoming Legislature rejected an anti-discrimination bill earlier this year.
But Laramie went ahead. The Laramie Nondiscrimination Task Force had presented a draft ordinance to the City Council last summer.
The two council members who voted against the new ordinance Wednesday night worried that it might preempt religious freedoms.
But, in the end, Artery said, common sense prevailed.
“It’s the end result of a lot of momentum,” said Artery, 44. “Laramie has sent a message to the Legislature that these protections are needed across the entire state. It became the duty of the City Council to pick up where the ball was dropped statewide.”
He hopes other communities will follow suit.
“Any time that something like this happens in a community in Wyoming, my biggest hope is that some person struggling to find their voice sees the headline, reads the story and has the courage to say, ‘Yes, I’m gay,’” he said. “When people come out of the closet and share their stories, they change hearts and minds. People don’t want to discriminate against people they love.”
That’s what happened to Artery.
Eight years ago, he was in a heterosexual marriage when he finally told his wife – on his grandmother’s 80th birthday – that he was gay. Then he informed his friends, family and employer that he couldn’t “live like this anymore.”
Today, he is married to partner Mike Bleakley.
That coming-out got his new life started.
“I told my family and they were extremely supportive,” Artery said. “They were like, ‘Finally! We’ve known this forever. Now we can move on and you can be happy.’”