Last week’s claims of harassment brought forth by a same-sex couple in Wapiti triggered a sizable response from the community – individuals and businesses alike – on social media and through their actions.
“This is exactly what Cody should not be about,” Wes Allen, owner of Sunlight Sports, said of the incident. “I don’t think anybody has the time to deal with people like that.”
Sunlight Sports made a public statement against hate on its Facebook page last week.
“If you hate your neighbors so much for who they are – who they love, the color of their skin, where they were born, where they worship, or any of the other things that make up that person – that you need to treat them differently or harass them or make them feel unsafe in their own home, don’t come into our business,” the post read in part.
Allen said he does not find this to be a “bold” statement and if anything wishes his business had done it sooner. He said employees have faced discrimination at his store.
“It’s not a reaction only to what happened in Wapiti,” Allen said. “This has not been a one and done thing.”
Stephanie Manuele, a Cody Middle School teacher, had her own response in the form of 300 stickers. Her series of three anti-hate and equality stickers include a Wyoming Bucking Horse and Rider with a rainbow and Heart Mountain in the background.
“This was my way of using my talents to help spread positive messages of encouragement,” Manuele said. “The hate can be overwhelming and it’s been heartwarming to see our community come together to support equality for all.”
Sarah Mikesell Growney is selling the stickers at her store, The Thistle. She said they have been flying off the shelves.
“Even though this is a fringe movement, the rest of us need to make very clear this is not acceptable here,” Growney said.
The stickers are also available in poster form. Manuele said $2 from every sale will go towards supporting local LGBTQ organizations.
One of these groups is the Prism Club, Cody High School’s first Gay Straight Alliance group. The club is sponsored by teacher Amy Gerber and was formed by a group of students including CHS graduate Ben Wambeke in 2019.
Gerber said the club has about 25-30 kids frequently attending their meetings.
"I wanted to establish a safe space for LGBTQ kids and allies to meet and discuss issues of interest and concern," Gerber said.
There have been a fair amount of detractors to the Wapiti allegations and response on Cody Classifieds and Cody Chit Chat Facebook pages. Many are questioning the legitimacy of the allegations and that hate and discrimination exists locally.
The Park County Sheriff’s Office is still investigating the incident and has not publicly released any more details. Sheriff Scott Steward has not made a comment on the allegations despite multiple requests from the Enterprise. The county’s dispatch center records do show a trespassing complaint filed from the street where the couple lives.
Four people accused in the incident have declined to comment on what happened.
Growney has lived in Cody for 17 years. She feels extremist voices and fringe hate movements started to gain traction in Cody about five years ago.
“This isn’t my Cody,” she said.
Melissa Maier has been living in Park County for nearly 30 years and helps manage Facebook groups Park County for Racial Justice and Park County Social Justice Book Club. She also helped organize a peaceful rally against racism in City Park this past June.
Maier said the purpose of these endeavors is to promote anti-racist education and help awareness move forward. She added they are in talks with Braver Angels, an organization that promotes people from many different beliefs having tough conversations about race in a civil manner, to host an event in Cody.
She feels people on both sides of the aisle are more divisive and radical than ever because of the upcoming presidential election and because social media gives exposure and better organization to specific groups of thought.
“When you can’t have civil discourse you lose credibility,” Maier said. “We need to work to find consensus across party lines to spawn change.”
Rose James, 57, is a hispanic woman and member of the Park County for Racial Justice group. James has lived in Cody since 2002 and Wyoming nearly her whole life. Although she said she has not faced overt discrimination, she did receive subtle forms of it while working at a few different Cody businesses.
She said being a member of these groups has been an empowering experience.
“There was so much going on around me and I didn’t realize it,” James said. “I’ve been learning too. I’ve been coming full circle in being able to understand what’s going on.”
Cody native Garrett Randolph recently released a music video for his band R&M’s new single “Change of Power.” The black and white video, featuring infrared-style clips of social justice protests and President Donald Trump from the past year, was edited by his brother, filmmaker Preston Randolph.
Garrett Randolph said the messages behind the song are encouraging people to get out and vote, as well as expressing his discontent with the current social environment.
“I wanted to not just preach, I saw words with his visuals,” he said. “I think most people can agree when you’re on someone’s neck for eight minutes, that’s not a good thing to do.”
Although Randolph said he believes both the Republican and Democratic parties are fueled by “dark money,” he is particularly unhappy with the Trump administration.
“I just want people to act more with empathy and love more for their country, not their party,” he said.
Change on the way?
The FBI reported 1,445 incidents of hate crimes nationwide involving sexual orientation in 2018.
Wyoming is one of three, and likely soon to be two, states nationwide that have no hate crime legislation. Because there are no hate crime laws in Wyoming, it is difficult to track these events.
"Being one of only four states that doesn't have a hate crime bill seems ironic since we are the state where Matthew Shepard was beaten, tied to a fence post, and left for dead simply for being gay," Gerber said. "When a crime is based on something that a person cannot change (such as sexual orientation or skin color), it harms not only the individual involved but every person that exists in that person's community."
State Rep. Sandy Newsome (Cody) has teamed up with Rep. Sara Burlingame (Laramie) in recent months to draft a hate crime bill for the 2021 legislature. Burlingame said the bill would give law enforcement officers the ability to specifically label hate crime acts.
She said she has the support of the Cheyenne police chief and director of the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation in crafting the legislation.
Since the bill is still being drafted Burlingame didn’t have many details, but said hate crime education and training provided to law enforcement officers would likely be a cornerstone.
Newsome said it’s important the bill contains very specific verbiage.
“We want to make sure it comes out without creating problems for law enforcement,” she said. “It needs to be really carefully structured.”
Newsome added she was actually opposed to this type of legislation until she had coffee with a young homosexual man this summer who changed her mind on the issue.
“A crime’s a crime,” she said. “He laid out a very clear reasoning why it’s important to him and others in the LGBTQ community.”
Gerber said this type of legislation is important because, "It would send a powerful message to offenders if their "hate" was prosecuted, if it crosses into harassment or physical harm."
Also possible in the legislation could be specific punishments for behavior deemed as hate crime activity.
Burlingame said the bill could make Wyoming more appealing to corporations considering moving their operations to the lower-tax state. Major corporations like UPS, Charles Schwab, Walmart and Visa have recently spoken out on the need for racial equality and LGBTQ rights.
“It’s making Wyoming a state where they know it will be safe for their employees to live,” Burlingame said. “The number one way to signal that is a hate crime bill.”
Those opposed to this type of legislation have criticized it as policing thought.
“A ‘hate crime’ is a crime based on thought. ‘Motive’ is the reason a criminal act is perpetrated,” said Ray Hunkins, a lawyer and 2006 Wyoming gubernatorial candidate, in an August Cowboy State Daily column. “It can be proven through evidence of thought. Hate crimes thus place motive as the operative fact to be determined in a trial alleging a ‘hate crime.’ In my opinion, criminalizing thought is a dangerous road to start down.”
But Burlingame and Newsome said determining motive is the exact measure prosecutors use to determine what charges and punishments the State will push for against a defendant, such as homicide murder versus manslaughter.
“You’re looking always at what happened, this isn’t ‘1984’ George Orwell,” Newsome said.
Newsome, a Cody resident since 1982, said the community has become less accepting of integration since those days.
“It seems now, it’s happening less and less,” she said.
James said knowledge gained from participating in social justice has been empowering.
“I’ve been learning how to be more supportive, and how many want to learn along with me,” James said. “It’s so wonderful, it’s empowered me to speak out. I want to be here for my granddaughters and any other person in Wyoming to help make changes.”