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Wyoming lawmakers set for showdown over UW gender studies, diversity office

Senate approves measures to defund often-targeted programs, but similar attempts fail in the House. Now, the two sides will need to negotiate a compromise.

Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) during the 2024 budget session. (Ashton J. Hacke/Wyofile)

by Maya Shimizu Harris, WyoFile

Wyoming’s sole four-year university has come under increasing scrutiny from the Legislature in recent years. 

That pressure hasn’t let up this session. Lawmakers brought several budget amendments this week aimed at molding UW’s curricula and resources amid uproar in the statehouse over the university’s direction. 

The House rejected and the Senate adopted a budget amendment to defund the university’s “gender studies courses, gender studies academic programs, gender studies co-curricular programs or gender studies extra-curricular programs.” 

Another proposal that aimed to bar state funding for the school’s office of diversity, equity and inclusion, or for “any diversity, equity and inclusion program, activity or function” also failed in the House while being approved in the upper chamber. 

Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) during the 2024 budget session. (Ashton J. Hacke/Wyofile)

A third amendment that proposed withholding $100,000 from UW’s family medical residency practice, which provides care in three Wyoming cities, if it offers or performs “any gender transition, gender affirmation or gender reassignment treatments” ultimately failed in both chambers. 

The role of a university

The amendments spurred impassioned speeches from both sides about the purpose of a university education, the meaning of equality and belonging, the free exchange of ideas and the Legislature’s role in dictating what UW can and can’t do. 

Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) introduced her amendment to defund UW’s gender studies courses and curriculum Wednesday as “an old friend of the Senate.” (Steinmetz has brought similar amendments to the Legislature in past years, but the proposal has yet to make it into the final version of the state’s budget.) Rep. Jeanette Ward (R-Casper) sponsored an almost identical amendment that failed in the House on Monday. 

Proponents of the change questioned the practicality of gender studies courses in preparing students for a job after graduation. Some referenced national culture clashes and raised the specter of out-of-state liberal ideas coming to Wyoming. 

“The world needs more cowboys,” Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester) said. “The world does not need more social justice warriors.” 

Opponents described the amendment as “micromanaging” and barring access to information that some people want. Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) warned the proposal would set “a dangerous precedent.”

“When you don’t like an idea or a concept and you the government — the all-powerful centralized government — chooses to stop that speech, to stop the sharing of those ideas, even those you disagree with so profoundly, that are contrary to your morals and your values, that is against freedom.” 

Sen. Affie Ellis during the 2024 budget session. (Ashton J. Hacke/Wyofile)

Sen. Affie Ellis (R-Cheyenne), an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, recited a modified poem to illustrate why she opposed the amendment. 

“First they came for gender and women’s studies, and I didn’t speak out because I didn’t take gender and women’s studies courses. Then they came for African American and diaspora studies, and I didn’t speak out, because I didn’t take African American and diaspora studies. Then they came for Latino studies. I didn’t speak out because I didn’t take Latino studies. Then they came for Native American and Indigenous studies. And Mr. President, there was no one left to speak for me.” 

“This is dangerous senators,” Ellis concluded. 

Office targeted

Debate on the proposal to bar state funding for UW’s office of diversity, equity and inclusion — the Senate’s version sponsored by Steinmetz and the House’s version sponsored by Ward — brought equally impassioned speeches. 

Some lawmakers argued for the amendment in highly racialized terms. Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne), for example, claimed some people are favored in the aviation industry because of the racial diversity they bring rather than their competence. Other legislators raised similar arguments. 

“Our voters sent us here because they’re sick of seeing this on the news, and they want us to vote this stuff out,” Bouchard said. 

Opponents of the amendment explained that the office supports a variety of students who are adjusting to life at the university. Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) noted as an example the challenges that first-generation students face when going to UW and the resources the office of diversity, equity and inclusion provides for such students.

The University of Wyoming is the state’s lone four-year public university. (Madelyn Beck/WyoFile)

“If their parents don’t know how to navigate a university, who’s going to provide that service?” Rothfuss, who teaches at UW, asked lawmakers. 

“I think, Mr. President, that folks in this discussion are thinking that diversity simply means people that look dramatically different from how we look. And that’s one aspect, but that’s not the mission of the office of diversity, equity and inclusion.” 

The House amendment sponsored by Rep. Sarah Penn (R-Lander) that proposed to withhold $100,000 from UW’s family medical residency practice if it offers or performs gender-affirming care initially passed in the House. But lawmakers voted Wednesday to delete it. Sen. Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne), who sponsored the Senate version of the amendment, withdrew her proposal Wednesday. 

These aren’t the only amendments lawmakers brought this year that aim to create barriers to gender-affirming treatments — other successful amendments brought in the House and Senate bar the Wyoming Department of Health from spending any of its funds on gender-affirming care. 

Lawmakers will have to negotiate the differences in each chamber’s version of the budget bill to create one bill that’s sent to Gov. Mark Gordon for approval. Those negotiations will likely take place next week. 

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.


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