Protect Our Own: A new group aims to protect LGBTQ Jackson residents from discrimination

By on October 18, 2017

October is the 19th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard.

The case of Matthew Shepherd is one of the Equality State’s ugliest scars. Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming, was brutally tortured and left to die in what is now considered one of the more notorious homophobic hate crimes in history.

And despite national legislation in Shepard’s name—the Matthew Shepard Act signed into law by former President Obama in 2008—Wyoming still does little to protect its LGBTQ community.

Jackson residents are hoping to change that, at least locally. Mark Houser, coordinator for Jackson’s PFLAG, and Matt Stech, a community prevention specialist, are asking town councilors to introduce a non-discrimination ordinance protecting LGTBQ people from housing and employment discrimination.

A Facebook page titled “Protect our Own: LGBTQ Rights for Jackson, Wyoming” went live last week as a first step in gaining local support.

“We are citizens of Jackson Wyoming and the larger Teton Community that support equality for our LGBTQ Community members,” the page reads. “We urge the Town Council of Jackson Wyoming to adopt a Non-Discrimination Ordinance not only to protect LGBTQ status in housing and employment, but to send a message that Jackson embraces all its members equally.”

Such an ordinance has come before the council before. In 2015, councilors drafted an ordinance, but ultimately decided to make it a resolution. The difference, Houser explained, is a resolution is just a “statement of hope and aspiration.” An indication of how things should be. An ordinance is law.

Wyoming’s current non-discrimination laws still do not include sexual orientation or gender identity as protected statuses. That means over 15,000 Wyoming residents are at risk of housing and employment-based discrimination, according to a recent study by the Williams Institute at UCLA’s School of Law. The report found that 29 percent of survey respondents reported being discriminated against by prospective employers, 20 percent had been fired from their job, and 17 percent had experienced housing discrimination, Wyoming Public Media reported.

Wyoming, of all places, should have a “soft spot for this,” said Matthew Shepard Foundation Communications Manager Sara Grossman.

“The fact that the ‘Equality State” is so far behind on equality is a slap in the face to all the efforts that the Shepard family have but forth to erase hate,” she said.

Local governments have the power to make their own protective ordinances, but so far, only Laramie has.

Even in a “blue dot in a red sea,” as Jackson is often referenced, such protections are necessary, Houser said.

Perhaps the “tenor of acceptance has improved in Jackson,” he said, “but I also believe that people who might hold an alternative viewpoint are not as visible as they might have been 10 or 15 years ago,” he said.

In other words: homophobia still exists in Jackson; it’s just quieter now. Instead of hate speech and violence, it takes the form of subtle, even codified discrimination.

On a larger scale, many of the protections that already exist are at risk. Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed an Obama-era policy that protects transgender people from workplace discrimination.

“We also see on a federal level some relaxations and some removals of protections for the LGBTQ community,” Houser said.

And Shepard’s family has noted the shift.

“We are now witness to that collective outrage surfacing in the mainstream today,” Shepard’s parents Judy and Dennis Shepard wrote in a letter to the Huffington Post last week. “Between the rolling back of Title IX obligations for transgender youth to be able to use the bathroom of their choice in school, to this administration’s heavy-handed (or in this case, heavy-thumbed) transgender military ban tweets and many other similar attacks, it feels pretty obvious that this community is being targeted again.”

Every October, the letter continues, Shepard’s family is “forced to reflect” on the progress, or lack thereof, politics have made in protecting LGBTQ people. This year feels like a regression. “How can it be 2017, and still we don’t have full equality? Or at least a government that believes in the basic human rights for all of its citizens?”

Politics, and the ideologies they uphold, trickle down. Federal politics impact state politics—Wyoming legislators voted against a law that would have expanded protected classes—impact local politics. And laws are pervasive.

Even if, under the new ordinance, a formal complaint is never filed, queer community members “would see that their town government has taken a proactive step to validate the issues that might be present,” Houser said.

Of course, not everyone follows the law. But they set a standard of behavior for most people to abide by, says local advocate Mary Erickson.
“What laws do is express the values of the community,” she said. “It does cause people to stop and think before they act.”

“Nondiscrimination ordinances are an essential part of recognizing all people as equal,” Sara Grossman echoed.

Indeed, a new study by JAMA pediatrics found that legalizing same-sex marriage was associated with fewer suicide attempts among adolescents. Before the Supreme Court legalized in nation-wide, the study showed that suicide attempts significantly decreased in individual states where same-sex marriage was legal.

Wyoming, meanwhile, has the highest suicide rate in the nation. Correlation, not causation, says any savvy statistician, but the point is laws impact morale. They make a difference.

But what good are marriage equality laws, Grossman questions, “if those benefits are cut off at state lines?”

“You can get married on a Sunday and fired on a Monday, because of who you’re married to,” Grossman said.

As a former priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church and active faith leader in the community, Erickson rejects the idea that LGBTQ protections are somehow in conflict with religious beliefs. Some religious beliefs, sure, she laughs. But her religion tells her, “we are all God’s beloved,” and should be treated equally, and loved equally.

“This is actually something that can be a faith-based proactive step to take,” Erickson said.

As co-chair of Shelter JH, Jackson’s housing advocacy non-profit, Erickson has seen, and been disappointed by, the ways local law fall short.

“We think we’ve made these huge strides and people don’t need these protections codified, but we do,” she said. When she spearheaded a tenant protections task force to try to level the playing field between landlords and tenants in a vulnerable housing market, her biggest challenge was convincing people there was even a problem.

“We can’t make assumptions that people are safe in ways they just aren’t,” Erickson said.

For Houser, there is no question that discrimination is still a problem. “I’m aware of many instances in employment and public accommodation where [discrimination] does happen,” he said. But without legal recourse, so there’s no way to document it.

Houser’s most recent legal efforts are still in preliminary stages. He hopes the Facebook group will garner a foundational support group. Sometimes, sheer volume is powerful lobbying.

“We’re hoping to, through a number of vehicles, provide input to the councilors and mayor,” Houser said. “There is wide-spread and diverse support for such an ordinance.” PJH

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