2:25 p.m., March 5, 2013

Jeran Artery
Jeran Artery, chairman of Wyoming Equality

Photo by Kasey M. Orr, Co-editor

Wyoming Equality

Jeran Artery, organization fight
in battle
for equal rights

Wyoming Equality is at the vanguard of the fight for equal rights of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community in the state. The largest LGBT activist organization in Wyoming, the group has worked tirelessly to back our state lawmakers as they try to pass laws ensuring the rights of Wyoming’s LGBT residents.

For more than 20 years Wyoming Equality has existed as a social network of events and support for the LGBT community, but in the past several years the organization has grown a strong political element, even gaining support from national organizations.

Jeran Artery, chairman of Wyoming Equality, has been working with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), which have donated time, advice and financial support to Wyoming Equality.

Artery said national organization involvement provides a way to share information from the national movement, allowing them to use a “best practices” approach, taking what has worked and throwing out what hasn’t, learning from the successes and failures of movements in other states.

The focus of the political element right now, according to Artery, is “defeating ugly anti-gay legislation and encouraging passage of pro-gay legislation,” clarifying that when he uses “gay,” he is talking about the LGBT community as a whole.

Wyoming has a fairly unique legislative schedule. Every other year the legislative session is a budget session of only 20 days, and any bill not directly involved with the budget requires a super-majority, even to be allowed on the floor. That means a two-thirds vote is required for a bill to be discussed during this session. This gives legislators and, in turn, groups like Wyoming Equality, two years between regular legislative sessions to gear up and prepare their bills.

Bills would bring change

Thus far, bills backed by Wyoming Equality were threefold: A marriage definition bill (HB 169): a domestic partnership bill (HB 168) and an antidiscrimination bill (SF 131). The first would have changed the language of the state’s definition of marriage to be a civil contract between “two natural persons.” The domestic partnership bill intended to allow LGBT persons (or anyone else) to enter into domestic partnerships with full responsibilities and rights. The anti-discrimination bill would add “sexual orientation and gender identification” to the list of prohibited discriminations (i.e. age, gender, religious affiliation).

Currently, no such statutes protect these individuals from discrimination. At the present time it is legal to be fired from a job for being gay, denied an apartment because of gender identification, or any other combination thereof.

(For more information on these bills, click here to read the editorial.)

“I think it surprises a lot of people to find that Wyoming is one of the few states that doesn’t have a DOMA amendment” in their state constitution, Artery said. DOMA stands for the Defense of Marriage Act, the intent of which is to insert language defining marriage being only between “one man and one woman.” The fact that such a conservative state has this DOMA language existing only as a state statute and has not successfully ratified a constitutional DOMA amendment is a “huge feather in our cap” as Artery put it.

This sort of legislation tends to come around every regular session, but between the efforts of organizations like Wyoming Equality and conscientious lawmakers, it has never passed. Artery conveyed surprise no such legislation was offered during this year’s regular session.

Health hazard?

When asked about the arguments most often brought up to discourage pro-gay legislation, Artery nearly smiled and looked up to the ceiling in exasperation, “Oh, it’s the same, old, tired rhetoric.” He recalled the woman who testified during the past few sessions introducing herself as a doctor and explaining that physiologically all gay men will die of anal cancer because, according to her, the male sperm is a carcinogen to another male body.

Then, Artery explained, some member of the committee asked the woman what kind of a doctor she was…exactly. She reluctantly admitted she was a chiropractor, and when further asked if she has any experience with patients with anal cancer, she said no.

“You wouldn’t believe the stuff,” Artery said. Rep. Mark Blake, R-Rock Springs, testified using statistics also aimed at portraying homosexuality as a health risk. The study said 39 is the average age when a gay man will die from AIDS, and 42 for every other cause. The study said lesbians live an average of only 45 years. The study, as it turned out, forced the psychologist who conducted and published it, Dr. Paul Cameron, to be expelled from the American Psychological Association and disassociated from the Canadian Psychological Association because the methodology and practices of the study were suspect. It was found to be misleading and dishonest and was never taken seriously in Cameron’s own field, “a laughing stock” Artery explained.

Yet time and time again it is invoked in the Wyoming Legislature, and other arenas, as evidence to base decisions upon. Artery said Blake has even stopped using Cameron's name when testifying because it's so recognizable. "He'll just use the numbers."

Although the religious argument against homosexuality is still very common among the general populace, according to Artery, it is not seen in the Legislature with the same frequency as it used to.

One of the facts Wyoming Equality finds the most encouraging is, although all three pieces of legislation were defeated, they came farther and the votes were closer than ever before. The marriage-equality bill died in committee, but by only one vote, whereas the last time this bill was brought forward, it was killed on the floor for lack of a second motion even to be discussed.

Domestic partnership passed its committee 7-2 and was lost in the House by less than 10 votes. Artery described this as “historic progress…out of the 25 yes votes, there were 17 Republican lawmakers that voted yes for domestic partnerships.”

How society raised him

Jeran Artery grew up in Wheatland as part of a big family. His father was a fourth-generation farmer. He and his family attended church “every Sunday unless we were sick,” Artery recalled. And that was where he said he learned to hate who he was. The rhetoric of the church he attended in his youth gave no solace to homosexuality but preached “that everything that was going on in my heart and mind was going to send me straight to hell.” The sermons at this church may have had a special impact because the preacher was Artery’s uncle.

“I hated who I was and wanted to change it,” Artery explained. And that’s the way he grew up. He was even married for 16 years until as Artery put it after a deep breath, “I couldn’t live the lie anymore.”

When asked what age he was when he finally came out, he looked away and said, “Oh, god.” He thought about it for a moment, and his eyes came back into focus as he said, “I was 34 or 35 when I came out…it’s no way to live.” He said when the time finally came, he was prepared to lose his family, his friends and his job.

“Luckily,” Artery said, ”none of that happened.” His family was completely supportive, saying they had known all along and were glad he could finally be happy.

“I’m thrilled there are so many resources available to kids [now] who might be struggling with the same things that I struggled with as a kid,” he said. ”I mean if I’d had the Internet as a kid….”

Prepare for worst, hope for best

Artery said the wonderful thing that came out of the situation was his daughter of whom Artery is the custodial parent. They share a close relationship, and she even accompanies him to the capitol when he testifies to the Legislature, and “if we win, we go home and celebrate, and if we lose, she holds my hand when I cry.”

“Come to find out my job was completely supportive,” Artery explained. “We have ‘Gay Day’ at the home office.” Artery works at the Cheyenne office of New York Life, which was one of the first companies to insure same sex couples in domestic partnership or civil union. Artery explained he can list his partner on his life insurance, and New York Life, he said proudly, was the first company to allow that.

He explained many of the Fortune 500 companies have adopted similar properties, which may cause reluctance in some companies moving business to Wyoming, as their employees would not be protected under the state’s discrimination laws.

To Jeran Artery, Wyoming Equality, and the rest of the LGBT community in the state, the defeat of these bills in the current Wyoming legislative session means only one thing: two years to plan for the next attempt. It’s back to the war room for the organization as they immediately go into planning mode for the next time around.

“We can’t get started soon enough,” Artery said. They will do an analysis, Artery said, on what tactics and information worked, on where or on whom they need to focus more attention and education.

“We have to stop looking at it as Republican versus Democrat,” Artery said. “We need to look at it as right versus wrong.”

Artery reminded there is still the social and supportive aspect of Wyoming Equality, and he encouraged anyone who was struggling with his or her issues of sexuality or gender identity to reach out to organizations like theirs. He said he looked forward to the day when groups like Wyoming Equality, or Across All Lines at Laramie County Community College, are no longer needed, “but until that day comes, these organizations are necessary and helpful and are doing a lot of good for residents of all ages in Wyoming.”

Wyoming Equality

Wyoming Equality: Facebook page

Human Rights Campaign

National Center for Lesbian Rights

HB 168

HB 169

SF 131

Defense of Marriage Act