The Mountain West is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country with a lot of that growth thanks to the tech industry. But Wyoming is bucking the trend, in part because young, hip techies don’t want to move to the cowboy state. It has an image problem--specifically, a gay image problem. But some locals are trying to change that.
On the fourth floor of a historic building in downtown Cheyenne, black and white photographs of old Wyoming were hung on the walls, but maybe not the ones you might expect.
“This is a lesbian wedding from the 1930s,” said Sara Burlingame.
She’s the executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Wyoming Equality. The photos are hanging up in her corner office. Burlingame said the photos are meant to serve as a reminder. Burlingame said, “We’ve always been here.”
We meaning queer people and here meaning Wyoming. Burlingame moved to the state 20 years ago this fall, about a month before Matthew Shepard’s body was found. He was a gay student at the University of Wyoming. In 1998, he was beaten and tortured outside of Laramie. He died a few days later from severe head injuries and the brutality of his death shocked the nation.
“Folks think about Wyoming and they think about Matthew Shepard’s murder,” said Burlingame. “And that is just a reality.”
But she wants to put Wyoming on the map for something else. She’d like to see it join a growing number of states that have across-the-board protections for LGBTQ people.
“When you subvert someone’s expectations, people pay attention,” Burlingame said.
And Wyoming needs a selling point right now. The state lost 25,000 jobs after its most recent energy bust. Erik Trowbridge said he sees the tech industry as a possible white knight.
“The beautiful thing about the tech industry is it’s not going away,” he said.
Trowbridge is a Cheyenne local and the founder of the Array School of Technology and Design. He said there’s a reason cities are doing whatever they can to attract companies like Amazon and Google.
“What industry has not yet been touched by technology? So if you’re able to create a technology hub, you’re literally putting this beating heart of people spewing ideas into every single industry--agriculture, military, retail,” said Trowbridge.
But in order for that to happen, Trowbridge agreed with Sarah Burlingame. Wyoming needs to work on its reputation.
Trowbridge said, “People know Wyoming for killing gays.”
He came face to face with that reality when he established his school in 2014. He was trying to hire instructors and his top candidate was someone he had worked with during his time at Apple.
“I remember calling him up and the first question out of his mouth was, ‘What’s the LGBTQ community like in Wyoming?’” he said.
The candidate wasn’t impressed with his answer. And that’s when Trowbridge knew he had a problem. He turned to Google to find a local LGBTQ advocacy group. That search led him to Wyoming Equality and Sara Burlingame. Now, the two of them are working together. Burlingame said it’s a unique partnership because their goal is to convince lawmakers that a statewide non-discrimination law makes economic sense.
“I mean, I think folks need to connect with economic reality that if we don’t pass non-discrimination, we’re leaving money on the table,” said Burlingame.
Burlingame explained that statewide protections would both reaffirm and welcome queer people and make Wyoming stand out to the tech industry. In other words--if you pass it, jobs will come. But Bunky Loucks doesn’t see it that way. He’s a Republican State Representative.
“I don’t want to give ammunition for people to sue people over things that might be perceived, might be real or not,” he said.
Many of his colleagues in the legislature agree with him. They see a non-discrimination law as just another regulation for small business owners. Loucks said Wyoming already comes across as friendly to businesses anyway, thanks to its low cost of living and taxation.
He also said Wyoming is friendly to queer people.
“I’ve heard from some of the LGBT themselves, they say that it’s not,” said Loucks. “I just don’t buy into that.”
He might not but Wyoming Governor Matt Mead’s economic diversity initiative does. The group identified a non-discrimination law as a key recommendation if the state wants to appear open for business.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.