In Casper, Wyoming, where the electoral map is as red as the sunset, there is no LGBTQ center. Casper doesn't have a "gayborhood,” those city centers where queer households and businesses have clustered together, or even a single gay bar. Pride — a joyous summer rebellion against the shame and persecution so many of us have survived, and far too many still face — is less a celebration of freedom here than an act of survival and solidarity.
But what this town does have, aside from near-constant wind and long winters, is a small, loving queer community that embraces the diversity of its members and has found strength in its young leadership.
While Casper has had a chapter of PFLAG, an organization that provides support for LGBTQ youth and their families, since 1994, the queer community was somewhat nebulous for a long time. That's not to say it was nonexistent; Casper has played an important role in advocating for equality in Wyoming and beyond. A local couple, Rob Johnston and Carl Oleson, were part of the Courage v. Wyoming case that won marriage equality for the state in October of 2014, months before the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal nationwide. Casper is also home to Judy and Dennis Shepard, the parents of Matthew Shepard, known internationally for their LGBTQ advocacy since their son’s murder in 1998.
Yet a monthly PFLAG potluck dinner was the only regular event for queer folks and their allies in Casper for years — until about two years ago, when a new generation took the reins.
Some of these young people stepped up out of necessity. "I grew up here and I felt like I never wanted to live here,” Betsy Bower, a local artist turned community organizer decked out in glitter makeup, a Casper Pride t-shirt, and a bright red tutu, told MTV News. In the other room of a local distillery, two drag queens from Denver were putting on a raucous show to a packed room in front of towering copper vats under flashing rainbow lights. It was a hell of a party; even the mayor had turned up to show her support.
But the good times haven’t always been this gay. “Two years ago, I was just like, ‘What the hell is going on with the LGBTQ community?” asked Bower. “Who does the things? Where is anything?’”
Bower eventually made her way to PFLAG meetings at Casper’s United Church of Christ. When she connected with those organizers, however, she found that the generation gap between the original members and her peers made it hard to work together. "I was the youngest person there,” she said. Bower and her peers “didn't really know anybody” and felt like other members “didn't really like us. We didn't know if we liked them. But we became family with them over the past two years."
"They've just brought more young people out, literally and metaphorically” Reverend Dee Lundberg, pastor at the UCC, told MTV News. Her church, the first establishment to fly a Pride flag in Casper, has long been a hub for the queer community. Lundberg’s warmth, wit, and strength make it obvious why even atheists are drawn to her services. She speaks of the next generation of LGBTQ leadership in her town like a proud aunt. “They feel like there's enough community [to] feel safe [to come out]. They have peers, camaraderie. We used to just do a picnic, and that was boring for me. They’ve just made it more interesting, more relevant. You've got to let each generation run with it and make it their own."
In spring of 2016, Gage Williams founded Out in Wyoming, a local LGBTQ organization that puts together events for teens and young adults. Williams is passionate about making his town a supportive and fun place for queer folks to live. Despite his visible exhaustion early on, at the Rainbows and Cowboy Boots dance party that opened the weekend, Williams only expressed gratitude for being able to help people come together. "I wanted to start something here to make the community stronger,” he told MTV News. “We've done barbecues, Trans Day of Remembrance, and we just did a gay prom called the Unicorn Ball. We get more people at every event and it's just amazing."
In January, local organizers in Casper, along with several other cities, built up a groundswell of opposition to HB 135, a bill that would have allowed Wyoming businesses to openly discriminate against LGBTQ people. Vocal opposition revealed how damaging the bill would be to businesses in the state, and the measure was withdrawn before it even made it to the state senate floor.
After Casper Pride, Williams and his peers will be getting right back to their legislative agenda, bringing an LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance to the Casper city council. They believe they can succeed if they work with their straight and cis allies, without whom "we wouldn't be the community we are," Williams said. "We actually need them to get things like nondiscrimination bills through."
Casper’s Pride celebration kicked off with a Friday-night dance party that saw people of all ages and identities cutting loose for a night downtown. “Pride in the Park” was held on Saturday between a cool green river and a sprawling playground, with tents and tables for local vendors and LGBTQ organizations surrounding a large pavilion, where a white runway was laid out for a fashion show. The outfits on display were surreal and elegant explorations of queerness through punk rock decadence. The fashion show was bookended with local musicians ranging from rock-and-rollers to a pair of DJs spinning ethereal beats from behind masks of mythical creatures, one of which was, memorably, a jackalope.
(A note for friends from far-off places: Jackalopes are elusive animals of Wyoming legend, rabbits with antlers sprouting from their foreheads. Allegedly they sing during storms, move faster than the eye can see, and can only be caught with whiskey. The horned bunnies were a recurring theme, featured in rainbow silhouette and declaring "Love Is Love" on t-shirts being sold by the Wyoming Democratic Party.)
People of all identities and backgrounds filled the park alongside their allies and leaders of the larger Casper community. The day was gorgeous; the sun beamed down from a clear sky and a gentle breeze cooled the dry summer air while Pride-goers mingled and marveled at how far their little festival had come. Everyone in attendance seemed surprised that a few hundred people showed up, since the event had drawn only 50 or so locals in prior years. The drag show later that night was completely sold out before the doors even opened. Without a gay bar to speak of, for one night this building became a haven for a queer community that, more than anything, wanted to enjoy something that was unapologetically theirs.
While enjoying the first drag show she'd ever seen, Casper mayor Kenyne Humphrey told MTV News that bringing the fight for LGBTQ equality to the forefront has to come from its leadership. "It's not something that reaches the city council very often,” she said. “We need to keep this progress moving forward."
Councilwoman Amanda Huckabay, who has been a vocal supporter of the LGBTQ community for years, agreed. “These students and business owners are an integral part of our community,” she told MTV News. “They deserve to not just be tolerated and accepted, but welcomed. I think [Pride] fosters a sense that love should be in everything we do."
The next day was a momentous one for Casper, as queer folks and their allies marched through downtown in solidarity with The Equality March in Washington, D.C. It was the first Pride march in Casper's history, and revelers were greeted with honking horns and cheers from passing cars. Organizers young and old walked alongside locals celebrating their first Pride. Spirits were high and there was a palpable sense of joy, hope, and defiance in the crowd. Here was another sign of progress, another step toward freedom.
It’s this relentless hope and intersectional support for each other that gives this small community its power. Pervasive problems of discrimination, harassment, and violence against LGBTQ people all over America might seem especially insurmountable in these out-of-the-way conservative strongholds. But they can be defied and overcome with pride and solidarity. "We have a few things that are good but mostly we have each other,” said Bower, “and that's what's important."
So what does this community, surrounded by sprawling ranch land and shadowed by old ideas that tower as high as the mountains looming over the town, have to teach the rest of us? First of all, and most importantly, those at the forefront of Casper's LGBTQ community find strength in openly supporting each other across diverse identities and experiences. At every event of Casper’s Pride weekend, inclusivity and intersectionality held sway. Organizers proudly displayed flags for trans, asexual, bisexual, and pansexual pride — symbols of solidarity that are rare to see even during Pride celebrations in larger cities with more progressive politics. It might seem like a small gesture, but there is something to be said for walking into a space and seeing those who are on the margins of the LGBTQ community being celebrated. The message is that everyone has a place and all are welcome, without judgment or qualification.
Another key element is this drive to try new things and center a younger, more innovative generation of leaders. It was the younger generation that moved Pride to a larger venue and brought in local musicians, artists, and a queer fashion show to breathe new life into the festival. Meanwhile, older organizers have been there to offer experience, guidance, and support every step of the way. Rather than just casting out what previous iterations have looked like, in Casper we found generations working together to build a stronger community on a foundation of history.
Casper's activists believe without a doubt that they can win equality for their LGBTQ community. They aren't satisfied with just playing defense, with defeating hateful legislation; organizers are keenly aware that laws of active support are needed to protect their people. They will carry this fight to the city council, the state legislature, and every voter they can reach with the message that queer folks deserve equal protections, because they are integral to Casper itself. We should all be so boldly engaged in the future of our communities.
Some queer residents of Casper are compelled to catch the first bus to a bigger city or a bluer state to find community and acceptance. Starting new lives in places like Seattle or Denver, places with bigger LGBTQ populations and a greater overall sense of safety, is a choice some make out of necessity. Sometimes, they still return to Casper for reasons that are as personal and important as the decision to leave in the first place. Folks who can't or don't want to leave are claiming this town as their home. They know in their hearts that they can make their corner of the world better for everyone with each celebration, protest, and legal battle for equality. That road is a hard one to travel, paved with both victories and defeats, but it is worth the journey.
It's easy to dismiss communities like Casper, out of the way and out of the national conversation. Outsiders and natives alike may operate under preconceived notions that there is nothing here for queer folks. There is a tendency among certain swaths of liberals and leftists to disregard entire states like Wyoming, places where the populace tends to vote Republican and pass regressive laws.
Contempt for places that overwhelmingly voted for Trump blinds the contemptuous to the needs of those who did not ask for legislated bigotry to further threaten their rights and lives. It's easy to sit at a distance and tweet that conservative states should be abandoned to all the consequences of Trumpism, losing their health care and suffering under compromised civil liberties. Seeing the folks who are fighting for, and occasionally winning, battles for equality takes effort. Too many people are quick to write these places off as irredeemable wastelands, places where social progress is dying before it can take root to begin with. But places like Casper, homes of fearless resistance waged out of necessity, shine bright with hope when seen up close.