Gay Wyoming advocates share their stories amid blitz of marriage equality initiatives

2014-03-31T08:00:00Z Gay Wyoming advocates share their stories amid blitz of marriage equality initiativesBy KYLE ROERINK Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
March 31, 2014 8:00 am  • 

CASPER -- Melanie Vigil doesn’t want to marry in Iowa, Massachusetts or New York.

“I want to get married in Laramie,” she said. “It’s my home.”

As a lesbian, though, she is obstructed by Wyoming law from tying the knot in her home state.

Vigil is one of the many faces fighting at the grass-roots level to change the law in the state.

She and a cadre of Wyoming residents, lawmakers and other advocates have been standing on the front lines of a recent multifaceted advocacy blitz replete with a lawsuit, legislation and media campaign where state lawmakers stood on the steps of the Capitol in support of marriage equality.

Now that a full-fledged campaign to overturn state law is underway, Wyoming's gay-rights leaders are launching a host of conversations, panel discussions and town hall meetings, said Jeran Artery, chairman of Wyoming Equality.

“What we’re pushing right now is for friends and families to have conversations on why marriage matters and get people out sharing their stories about how this impacts them,” he said.

On Thursday, Vigil joined a panel of two other speakers at the University of Wyoming to tell students her stories and offer advice about grass-roots activism.

Vigil is a 22-year-old senior at the University of Wyoming and one of the youngest people in the state to throw themselves in the public sphere to work on myriad bottoms-up advocacy initiatives.

She’s juggling her position in academia with the responsibilities of being the legislative aide for Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, the first openly gay lawmaker in Wyoming.

Vigil has a double major and a GPA above 3.7. She is a finalist to win the award for most outstanding female graduate at the university. During the recent 20-day budget session, she was leaving Laramie at 5:30 a.m. to spend her days in the Capitol and returning after 6:30 p.m. to hit the books.

“She is the face of Wyoming and (among the) the individuals we talk about when we talk about retaining people in Wyoming,” Connolly said.

In an age where civic optimism can be drowned out by a cacophony of more entertaining distractions, Vigil propels a “people-before-politics” mantra with a deep-rooted urgency.

“I know I can’t always change minds,” she said. “But I can change laws.”

She told the 20 people in attendance to find their local lawmakers and tell them to support gay marriage. During the recent legislative session, lawmakers defeated a bill that would have defined marriage in the state as a bond “between two natural persons.”

Vigil expressed some dismay over the loss. But then she perked up.

“We got the speaker of the House to vote in favor of it,” she said.

Jessie Irish, a university junior, said that before she listened to Vigil, reaching out to a lawmaker seemed impossible.

“I didn’t realize it was something so accessible,” she said. “I assumed it was a challenge. I imagined receptionists and automated responses.”

Sitting next to Vigil on the panel was Carl Oleson, 54, a Casper resident and former adjunct faculty member at UW.

When he worked at the school in the 1980s, he was openly gay. One day, he arrived at his office to find invectives spray-painted across his windows.

Today, he is a married man. He traveled to Canada to exchange vows with the person he loves. He’s lived in New York and Las Vegas, but the Riverton native’s heartstrings are tied to Wyoming.

He’s been a member or an official of nearly every gay advocacy group that’s existed in the state during the past three decades.

Oleson doesn’t fit the stereotype of the modern gay man as effeminate. He does hate football, but he likened himself to Mr. Clean as he warmed up the audience, sporting a bald head, goatee and leather jacket.

He is a man highly aware of his sexuality and anxious about public perception. He becomes uncomfortable when others in the community become conscious of his lifestyle to the point of discrimination.

He and his partner were buying wedding rings, and one salesperson avoided them completely. Another employee asked Oleson for his "bride’s name."

“I said, ‘Robert.’ She looked up at me and said ‘I have the perfect set of rings,’ ” he said.

Oleson and his partner, Rob Johnston, signed on to a lawsuit to challenge Wyoming’s marriage laws in state court. They join the National Center for Lesbian Rights and three other Wyoming-based same-sex couples in the suit. It’s the first of its kind in the state and is likely to wind up in the state Supreme Court.

Oleson is quick to recognize that a lawsuit won’t quell bigotry and hatred in the state. But it does provide an example for younger people of how to attack a problem.

He said his goals are to acculturate the next generation of gay leaders and introduce the ideals and morals of the gay community to people unfamiliar with them.

“You can hate an idea a hell of a lot easier than you can hate your neighbor,” he told the students Thursday.

Oleson, Vigil and others in the state aren’t reinventing the wheel when it comes to their advocacy. It’s a person-to-person, neighbor-to-neighbor initiative, they said.

“Wyoming’s so small there aren’t six degrees of separation,” said Jim Osborn, a university employee and longtime activist who spoke with the panel. “You don’t have to walk around with a neon sign, but you have to let people know where you stand.”

Osborn and his partner are fathers to Nessa, a daughter Osborn fathered through a surrogate.

Osborn, a Wright native, has a bellowing voice but isn’t afraid to add a British lilt for some humor. He spoke to the group of students as he held the infant. Sitting close by was a baby bag filled with milk, toys and diapers.

Osborn was a central figure in Laramie after the death of Matthew Shepard, the UW student murdered in the outskirts of Laramie in 1998.

He dressed as an angel to silently protest the late Rev. Fred Phelps when he came to disparage gays during a memorial service for Shepard shortly after the murder.

Osborn has led a litany of pro-gay groups in Laramie. At one time, he was feeling apathetic because he was seeing the same faces at meetings or events. He wanted to see more change and to stop preaching to the choir.

Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, was reading a newspaper and sitting within an earshot of Osborn.

“Sometimes," she told Osborn, "the choir needs practice.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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