Out in the Equality State
|Out in the Equality State|
Eleven years after Matthew Shepard, Wyoming's first Lesbian legislator
by Liz Meyer - SGN Contributing Writer
When I think of Queer politicians, I think of Harvey Milk or Sam Adams, of martyrdom or controversy, but almost without exception, of white, urban males.
Rep. Cathy Connolly, then, presents quite a challenge to my hegemonic norm.
A mother who has described herself as "too lazy to stay in the closet" hails not from some Gay mecca, but from Wyoming. Yes, that Wyoming, the one home to tragedies both fictional and appallingly real, from Jack Twist's murder in Brokeback Mountain to Matthew Shepard's in Laramie. And even stranger for a city slicker like me to grasp, she seems to love it there.
"I'm from upstate New York, but I came out here, like most of us did, because of a very good job offer," says Rep. Connolly, Wyoming's first ever openly Gay member of the State Legislature. "The reality is 60% of people in Wyoming weren't born here. But we come out here for the good jobs and everything else."
On one hand, Rep. Connolly, who has worked in the sociology and women's studies departments at the University of Wyoming in Laramie for 17 years, seems keenly aware of the importance of being a very visible Queer figure in a sheltered, if not hostile, environment.
"I made a very conscious decision to come out to my students," she says. "I didn't want any of them to say they'd never met a Gay person. We in Wyoming, and all of us, have responsibilities."
However, Rep. Connolly is also very hesitant to call her sexuality the catalyst for her political career.
"There are a lot of issues that are important to me," says Rep. Connolly.
While that may be the case, Rep. Connolly has made headlines in recent weeks for her leadership on Gay rights issues. She was a key player in the defeat of a Wyoming House bill that would have allowed state voters to vote upon amending the state constitution to deny recognition of same-sex marriages. Additionally, she introduced House Bill 203, legislation that aims to prohibit discrimination based upon sexual orientation.
I spoke with her briefly and asked her a couple of questions about what it means to be such a public Lesbian figure in a rural place, especially one with such a storied homophobic history.
Liz Meyer: I'm sure you get this question all the time, so I apologize in advance for asking it. What, though, is the significance of the first openly Gay member of the Wyoming state legislature and representing Matthew Shepard's hometown?
Cathy Connolly: I've actually never been asked that before, so I don't have a clue. I'm just there, with only about two and-a-half weeks to go. The reality is that there are 17 jillion other things on the agenda. So yeah, as far as the significance goes, I really don't have a clue. I just know that's who I am.
Meyer: Do you think the Shepard murder politicized you?
Connolly: I've always been very political. It's just a part of your reality. On a personal level, the event certainly impacted me. I'm part of the Laramie Project, and my character in it, which is just a character, made me a public figure. The murder horrified me, it deeply impacted me, but it also did something else: It solidified my view. It certainly meant that as a faculty member I would come out to all of my students.
Meyer: It's rare that a legislator comes from an academic background. And you and I both know how underrepresented women's studies is in all fields. In what ways does your background differentiate you from the traditional "good ol' boys' club" in the House?
Connolly: Well, it's no surprise to anyone that I stand up on issues regarding equality. I care and talk about these issues.
Meyer: Did being a Gay parent encourage you to enter politics? Was it a situation where you felt like saying to lawmakers, "Hands off my family and families like mine?"
Connolly: I don't know how to answer that question. I think that being a Gay parent is an incredibly important element of my life. I made a conscious decision when I become a mother 23 years ago to not let my child ever think that he had to keep a secret. But there are so many other things. I ran for office in part because I was asked to. I was in a personal position when I could be elected, because it takes so much time and resources. There are a lot of issues important to me and others. In addition to being a Gay parent, it means being active in anti-violence work, in fighting the wage gap, in wanting to be a good steward of the land. All of these things go into it.