Talk about going against the flow: Wyoming state Rep. Cathy Connolly and her fellow Democrats are not only outnumbered 52 to 8 by Republicans in the state Legislature, but Connolly is the first openly gay representative in the conservative state.
So what happened Monday, she says, can only be characterized as a stunning step forward.
A bill that would allows same-sex couples in Wyoming most of the legal rights of heterosexual couples cleared a subcommittee by a 7-2 vote and is headed to consideration in the full House.
“We passed the first step; but it’s a big step,” Connolly, 56, the bill’s sponsor, told the Los Angeles Times. “In the past this bill has met failure, even at the subcommittee level.”
But since a similar bill was defeated 5-4 in the same House subcommittee in 2011, Wyoming legislators have moved toward reaching a consensus on broadening domestic partnerships.
The bill replaced the word “spouse” in state statutes with the phrase “domestic partnership.” Connolly testified before the committee Monday that the word “spouse” is used more than 300 times in Wyoming law and that the change would assist same-sex couples in a range of situations, including spousal support, disposing of a deceased partner’s property and other family decisions.
Gay rights advocates supported the vote by the House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee in a state where the gay college student Matthew Shepard was killed in 1998. That year, the 21-year-old at the University of Wyoming was robbed, beaten and tied to a fence -- left to die -- by two men he met in a bar.
“The ongoing national debate over the term ‘marriage’ is profound and is not going away,” said Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation. “But for the people of Wyoming to wait another 25 years for social attitudes to change on this issue would be a tragedy. This vote is a step to see that doesn’t happen.”
But advocates also learned that same-sex equality in Wyoming won’t be built in a day: Also Monday, the same House subcommittee handed Connolly a defeat, rejecting 5 to 4 a bill that would have expanded Wyoming’s marriage statutes to permit same-sex marriages in the state.
“For that one to have passed would have been astonishing,” Marsden said. “But it only failed by one vote in the committee, and that offers hope for the future.”
Advocates estimate that 3% of Wyoming’s population of just under 560,000 are gay or lesbian. Opponents objected to both bills on religious grounds.
Connolly said Wyoming was the first state to give women the right to vote, and she hopes for similar critical thinking in the future.
“For us to come out of a committee where we’re outnumbered 8-1 is certainly a victory,” said Connolly, a woman’s studies professor at the University of Wyoming and mother of a young son.
“I think Wyoming is ready to take a step toward same-sex marriage. It may be the site of the Matthew Shepard murder, but young people like Matthew are killed in every state in the country.”