The New Face of Gay Power


    Casper city councilman Guy Padgett, left, with his companion Jason Marsden

    It's tempting to think there are two gay Americas, one frightened and one fabulous, a merely gay America and a fully Queer America. An America where the gay bars darken their windows to hide ashamed patrons, and an America where straight people stand in line to get into gay clubs. An America where the June 26 Supreme Court decision legalizing sodomy had more than symbolic consequences, since gay sex was still a crime in 13 states. And an America where instead of arresting gays, the police help clear the streets every June for pride parades, which of course include contingents of gay cops.

    Over the past few months, we've seen a lot of the latter nation. One much discussed TV show has offered a stylized world in which a queer eye can be cast upon a straight guy and not end up blackened; on another program, Boy Meets Boy , some straight men actually pretend to be gay.

    In this oversimplified polarity, Wyoming sits in the heart of that first gay America. The two straight men who most famously pretended to be gay in this state were Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, who—five years ago this week—got Matthew Shepard into a truck, tied him to a fence outside Laramie, beat him into an unrecognizable shell and left him to die. Though robbery and drugs may have been other factors, Henderson and McKinney were also teaching Shepard a lesson about what happens when you bring a little bit of Queer America to the other one.

    But five years later, that other America—the quiet gay frontier of Wyoming and other places where cowboy boots and work shoes far outnumber Prada slides—is becoming less frightened. In part because Shepard was attacked here, and in part because of its live-and-let-live ideal, Wyoming has even become something of a national laboratory in which gays and straights are learning—ever haltingly, now a step forward, now a lurch back—to live together. If you want to understand the future of gay politics, forget Fire Island, N.Y., and West Hollywood, Calif. Come instead to Cody, Wyo., at Yellowstone's doorstep, where a national gay-straight alliance, the Republican Unity Coalition (r.u.c.), was founded two years ago and counts former President Gerald Ford among its board members. Or visit Casper, Wyo.—hometown of Vice President Dick Cheney, who has warmly embraced his openly lesbian daughter Mary—where Guy Padgett III, a member of the city council, decided last week to come out publicly for the first time, in this article. Or drive through the Medicine Bow National Forest to much maligned Laramie. It's actually the Berkeley of Wyoming, the only town in the state with a four-year university, a place that has always had a liberal aura and today is home to Spectrum, one of the most vibrant gay college groups in the West.

    To be sure, gay life here can be lonesome. Wyoming is thought to be the only state without a gay bar. While traveling here, I met a blond, lanky 22-year-old hair stylist whose mother had thrown him out for being gay. I met a man whose boyfriend committed suicide in despair, and I met a lesbian couple who have lived in the same Casper home for 21 years and yet have never spoken openly with the neighbors about their love for each other. Instead, they let people think they are just roommates. Wyoming has constructed an entire culture around the fraught military concept known as "Don't ask, don't tell." Nearly every Wyomingite I met used that phrase, or a version of it, with respect to homosexuality. "People have an open mind but a closed mouth here," says Alan Simpson, former G.O.P. Senator from Wyoming and honorary chairman of the R.U.C.So what happens when gays start opening their mouths?

    The Cody Republicans
    Charles Francis didn't grow up in Cody, but he knew the town from childhood summers at the nearby ranch of oil tycoon H.L. Hunt, a longtime family friend. He remembered Cody's "big-sky libertarian feeling" and theatrically Western spirit (the town was named for showman Buffalo Bill; wannabe gunslingers still walk around in period dress to impress the tourists). In 2001, Francis, who had become a Washington p.r. man for DCI Group, a corporate lobbying firm, wanted to start an organization that would institutionalize the ties between well-connected gay Republicans like himself and the straight party leadership. It would be a "grass-tops" group that would complement a grass-roots organization called the Log Cabin Republicans.

    He had an auspicious place to start: the top. The Francises and the Bushes are Texas families connected by the deep bonds of power and wealth. L.B.J. biographer Robert Caro has called Francis' granduncle Charles I. Francis a "heroic figure in the Texas oil industry." The younger Charles first met George W. Bush some 15 years ago on a bass-fishing trip in Athens, Texas, where both families had getaways. Francis' brother James was Bush's campaign chairman in the 1994 gubernatorial race. Four years later, Charles came out to Bush in a letter. "The day he gets it, he calls, and he says, 'Course I knew you were gay, but I wasn't sure how to bring it up,'" recalls Francis, 52. "'And I want you to know we are better friends than ever, even though there's going to be stuff we disagree on.'"

    Francis had seen AIDs devastate gay Washington in the '80s, and he had watched as closeted Reagan officials said nothing to the President. "Then 20 years later, my family friend is running for President," says Francis. "And I thought, I'll be damned if he is President and there's this weird, awful silence again." He organized a group of gay Republicans to meet Bush in Austin, Texas, during the campaign—a group that became the seed for the r.u.c. Francis wanted the group to have a non-Washington feel, and he wanted a prominent straight Republican as chairman. Cody's Alan Simpson was an obvious choice. Simpson, who turned 72 a month ago and who left the U.S. Senate in 1997 after an 18-year career, had been shocked by the Shepard murder. One of his cousins—"sweetest guy on earth," he says—had come out decades earlier, and Simpson and his wife Ann had socialized in Washington with gay people for years, even though Simpson, a Judiciary Committee bulldog, fought for some of the most conservative court nominees in the country. Simpson describes the Laramie attack as a "crucifixion," and he spoke at a vigil at the U.S. Capitol not long after Shepard died. Barney Frank, the openly gay Massachusetts Congressman and a friend, warned Simpson that because he was a Republican, he would be booed at the vigil. He was, but lesbians and gays from around his state also introduced themselves to him that day. "I said to myself, 'This is fascinating; these people are from all over,'" Simpson recalls, with self-conscious bemusement. When Francis approached him to join the R.U.C., he readily agreed. The group signed its credo, the Cody Statement, in the basement of the town's Buffalo Bill Historical Center in August 2001, and its nickname became the Cody Republicans. "We are Republican because we believe in limited government, free markets, a strong national defense, and personal responsibility," it says in part. "Some of us are straight, some of us are gay or lesbian, and some of us think it is nobody's business but our own what we are. All of us are American."

    Since its founding, the R.U.C. has given $100,000 to the G.O.P.'s congressional fund-raising committees, which buys it access on the Hill. Despite opposition from evangelical Christians, who make up a vastly bigger part of Bush's base than gays do, the White House has named three openly gay officials. Bush has refused to overturn Bill Clinton's Executive Orders banning anti-gay discrimination in the Federal Government. How much credit R.U.C. deserves for these developments isn't clear—those with real access to the White House take care not to discuss it. But even gay Democrats in Washington say having an openly gay conduit to the Oval Office can be crucial when gay issues arise.

    The biggest test of R.U.C.'s influence will come in the bitter intraparty fight brewing over gay marriage. Some Republicans are pushing a constitutional amendment that not only would prohibit gay marriage (federal law already does that) but also could invalidate state domestic partnerships that give gay couples the same rights—inheritance and power over medical decisions, for instance—as straight married couples. Last month the Washington Post published an op-ed piece by Simpson opposing the amendment. Francis is careful to note that Bush hasn't come out in favor of it, though the President has said, vaguely, "I believe marriage is between a man and a woman, and I believe we ought to codify that one way or the other."

    Francis and Simpson mostly wish the marriage question hadn't come up yet. "Too fast, too soon," says Francis. Simpson is more revealing: "To be talking all day long about gay marriage is a tragedy. We have made so much advancement in this party, in this state, in this country, and they bring up the one issue that's contentious. I say, 'Jesus Christ, aren't you satisfied with progress? With acceptance? Beats hell out of me why you want to drag that dead cat around' ... Because see what happens? My whole party is now trying to do a constitutional amendment. My God! I can't believe it. I thought all you right-wing cuckoo pals of mine were all about states' rights."

    Which pretty much sums up what the Cody Republicans believe: the party should stow the anti-gay rhetoric, but gays should shut up too. (The Cody Statement says, paradoxically, that the group—a classic issue organization—exists to make sexual orientation "a non-issue.") Even Francis occasionally finds his role as a Cody Republican uncomfortable. He brought his boyfriend, New York publishing executive Stephen Bottum, to a black-tie fund raiser for the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. But they didn't dance. "Charles wants to, but he thinks it would scandalize Cody," said Bottum, a Democrat, with a very patient smile.

    The Casper Politician
    Guy Padgett knows what being out in Wyoming can mean. He went to school with Matthew Shepard—their little smiling faces are just pages apart in the ninth-grade yearbook—and when Padgett moved back to Casper from Yale University, Shepard was part of his circle. "We weren't that close," says Padgett, 26. "But it felt very personal when he died. It hit me very hard. If you had asked me two weeks before if someone could be killed in Wyoming for being gay, I would have said no. We are a state that respects individuality, and we are immune from that kind of violence, intolerance. Wyoming always felt like a very safe place to me. My family had never locked our doors ... But after Matt was killed, I was scared for my personal safety

    That Padgett made it to the city council is a measure of the state's devotion to the "Don't ask, don't tell" orthodoxy. After he started seeing men in Wyoming, Padgett discovered what many other lesbians and gays here already knew: if you stay out of roughneck bars like the Fireside (where Shepard met his killers), and if you avoid propositioning heterosexuals, you'll be fine, because straight Wyomingites will keep their end of the bargain—they won't ask. "Wyoming is a state of fences," says Bob Hooker, 43, a Wyoming AIDs activist who was born and raised in Laramie. "It has this whole attitude that goes back to ranching days: You don't worry about what's going on in my ranch, and I won't tell that you're beating your wife at yours."

    But not telling forces lesbian and gay Wyomingites to lie, or at least to omit details in everyday conversation. When Padgett decided to run for city council last year, he complied with the rules, sort of. To extend a metaphor, he resided in the closet but kept its door ajar. He was living in the same house as his partner, Jason Marsden, 31, and he gave that address as his campaign headquarters. Marsden, executive director of a conservation group, came out in a Casper Star-Tribune op-ed shortly after the Shepard murder, so everyone knew he was gay. "Honestly, if anyone thought about it, they could figure it out," says Padgett. "The newspaper never asked, never did a story. In fact, in all my campaigning, door to door, talking to people, no one asked me, not once."

    After he was elected, Padgett was careful to remove his commitment ring before council meetings. He is sure that some of his colleagues and most of his constituents don't know he's gay. When he, Marsden and I first met, they asked me not to reveal Padgett's name in this article. Marsden kept a butcher knife next to his bed in the days after Shepard was killed, and he didn't want to live in fear again. "I don't know if the doors and windows and locks are strong enough for us to want to expose ourselves again," Marsden said. But Padgett spent a mostly sleepless night reconsidering his decision. He knew that Judy Shepard, Matt's mother, went around the country saying nothing will change until "everybody comes out and stays out," as she puts it. And here he was, someone who had known her son—and had seen her tears—and he was hiding. "Let's do it," he told me, adding later, "Now that we've had five years to grieve, it's time to make some positive changes." What about the butcher knife? "I felt silly about that anyway, even at the time," says Marsden. Nonetheless, as I was leaving their house, Padgett told me, "Now I guess I'll figure out if I can really stay in Casper. I keep thinking about Caesar. Jacta alea est." The die is cast.

    The Future of Wyoming Sometimes it's impossible to tell whether Wyoming gays feel safe or scared, whether they believe they are full citizens of the state or strangers within it. Although it is easy to get caught up in Padgett's act of self-revelation or in Francis' romantic childhood notions about Wyoming's big spirit, many gay people here are deeply ambivalent about their state. They often talk about its beauty—about the unbound, wide-open spaces that make liberty seem within one's grasp. But many haven't quite found freedom.

    Consider the state's leading gay political group, United Gays and Lesbians of Wyoming (uglw). It's a wing-and-a-prayer affair that is open just two half-days each week and has little influence in Cheyenne, the state capital. And even though its job is to work toward acceptance of gays in the state, two of its six board members haven't come out at their workplaces, according to uglw executive director Michael Pellecchia.

    A native of the Philadelphia suburbs, Pellecchia moved to Cheyenne with his partner, Tony Hughes, in June 2002. "I guess I didn't expect that people in Wyoming would be as closeted as they are," he says. One reason is that gay bashings still occur. Not long ago, Pellecchia says, a gay couple were assaulted in a bar in a rural part of Wyoming. One of the victims had to see a doctor for bruised ribs and cartilage damage. But the men didn't file a police report. "I suspect it has to do with them not wanting to out themselves to the police," says Pellecchia. "They were embarrassed to say they were gay."

    The rules are enforced in more subtle ways too. The Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, the Cheyenne daily, ran a photo of two men kissing after trading vows in Vancouver, Canada, where gay marriage is now legal, and the paper was flooded with angry letters. "It made our stomach 'queasy,' feeling like someone ugly and disgusting broke into our home," wrote Ron and Pat Feit of Cheyenne. Others didn't vent such outright bias but instead expressed hope that the "Don't ask, don't tell" system would last. Said Lisa Ray of Pine Bluffs: "I'd suggest that readers who support your agenda with their hard-earned money place your publication in the same location this subject belongs—a closet."

    But closet doors are creakily, slowly opening all over the state. Janet de Vries, who has been active in the Casper gay community for more than two decades but had never agreed to have her full name printed in any story about homosexuality, decided last week that she could no longer stay hidden. "I thought, You know, who am I fooling?" says de Vries, 46, a career counselor. "I want to be able to stand up and be proud of who I am. I could die tomorrow, and then, what difference would it make if I kept pretending to hide?"

    De Vries hid for all the usual reasons: fears she would be fired—she still doesn't want her employer's name printed here—or attacked or harassed. She and her partner, a closeted government worker, once had reason to suspect an anti-gay hate group was photographing their home, though they never found proof. Such fears can loom large here because gays have no places to gather and buck one another up. "It's hard for gay people to even meet gay people in the state of Wyoming," says de Vries. "The thing that happened when Matt was murdered was that for the first time, I think, the state as a whole was forced to realize that there were gay people living here ... Among gay people, the reactions were so far apart: some people dove back into the closet under the laundry. Other people said, 'Screw it; I'm coming out.'"

    That brash spirit is most evident today at the University of Wyoming, in Laramie, where Shepard was enrolled. Few students remember him personally. Optimism, not residual fear, prevails in the busy campus gay group, Spectrum. Abra Soule, 20, has been out as a bisexual since high school in Rock Springs, Wyo. After another girl outed her, Soule, then just 15, didn't try to hide. "And that actually helped ... I just stated it and said, 'Yeah, this is who I am.'" She was never threatened. In fact, there was something of a school-wide shrug: many kids told her she was only trying to get attention in the wake of the Shepard murder, which had just occurred. And now, she says, "I actually get a lot more flak about being a feminist on campus than being bisexual."

    Shepard would have loved the sense of change in the air. "Matt used to say to me, 'Why can't I find anything happy about gay people?'" says Judy Shepard. Happiness may still be a distant goal for all Wyoming gays, but five years after Shepard was murdered, you can feel the ground moving under your feet. Says de Vries: "In a place where we never talked about it, we talked about it after Matt died. And thankfully, we're still talking."