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Staying proud: Wyoming’s pride events flourish amid rise in hostility

The last two years were the first in decades that state lawmakers passed anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Even so, events are planned across Wyoming to celebrate pride and the diverse people here.

Residents celebrated Rock Springs Pride among booths on a sunny day, June 2023. (Rock Springs Pride)

By Madelyn Beck and Calla Shosh

It used to be just a picnic in a park. But Casper residents knew their June pride celebration had the potential for much more.

“We started as a picnic with the local PFLAG chapter,” Casper Pride Executive Director Mallory Pollock said. “And then nine years ago, it kind of was like, ‘Well, I think we could make a whole weekend of it.’”

They established the Casper Pride nonprofit, fostered community interest and, after many years of work, moved their now much larger celebration to David Street Station — the city’s downtown plaza. 

“That was in 2021,” Pollock said. “Making that big move to the downtown hub was really scary and exciting, all in one.” 

It was exciting because new people could just stumble across the festivities and join in, she said. But it also meant being more visible and vulnerable.

As Casper Pride’s success blossomed, its detractors grew louder. Just last year, Rep. Jeanette Ward (R-Casper) called for a boycott of businesses that supported Casper’s pride celebrations, which included a hospice and food bank. 

“Please join me in prayer this weekend and this month, that wholesome family values would be celebrated in our community rather than abominations such as Pride month,” Ward wrote on Facebook last June. 

Ward’s call, however, had no effect on vendors’ support, Pollock said. 

That same year, Wyoming lawmakers passed their first piece of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in nearly 50 years, prohibiting transgender girls from competing with girls’ teams in middle and high school. This year, lawmakers passed more pieces of legislation aimed at the transgender community, including banning most forms of gender-affirming care for minors.

And this year, too, lawmakers pressured the University of Wyoming to eliminate its Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. While the school didn’t eliminate all programs or lay off staff, UW trustees acquiesced to their largest funder and shuttered the office

But it’s finally June again, and the show must go on. Wyoming pride celebrations are coming out bigger and better than ever, organizers say, giving residents a chance to celebrate who they are, even if some state lawmakers have grown louder in their criticisms of the LGBTQ+ community.

“My identity is not political,” said Laramie PrideFest board chair and city native Nicholas Jesse. “I didn’t walk into a polling booth and decide one day to check a box that said, ‘I’m gay.’ It’s not based on a political party.”

Pride celebrations around Wyoming will include entertaining and campy events, but also safety measures. Still, even with increasing political tension, pride organizers expect to find plenty of joy. 

“Personally, I’m more nervous about getting my drag show performance correct [than protesters],” said Wind River Pride member Taylor Pajunen.

Preparing for pride

Members from the white nationalist group Patriot Front showed up — though they didn’t show their faces — before a Wind River Pride drag show last June. And in March, about 50 Wyoming Catholic College students came to protest another drag show, Pajunen said.

There were even prolonged concerns raised over the screening of the movie “Wildhood” in Riverton during last year’s pride, she added. While pride volunteers asked kids for parental permission to see the movie, she said, concerns persisted. 

“The film screening ended up being the thing that got the most long-term pushback,” Pajunen said. “People going to the county commissioners, city council. People who didn’t even go to the film screening itself.”

But through it all, she said their group has grown closer and stronger. This year, there will be even clearer communication about movie screenings and allies with rainbow umbrellas to get between celebrants and any potential protesters, Pajunen said. 

“We’ve done a lot of ally outreach, which will be really exciting,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of allies who are coming to the drag show in a very visible form to be a deterrent, if necessary.”

While pride organizers have talked with law enforcement, Pajunen said they didn’t want to depend on them, given a national history of harmful interactions. Pride celebrations largely grew out of the 1969 Stonewall uprising, when New York City police raided a gay nightclub.

There haven’t been any statements from city administrators to Wind River Pride about the hate that’s been publicly directed at the organizations, Pajunen said. Town officials previously told WyoFile that they didn’t want to give undue attention to the agitators.

This will also be the first year in several that there won’t be a pride month proclamation from the Lander City Council after the mayor didn’t respond, she said. Lander Mayor Monte Richardson also didn’t respond to WyoFile by press time. 

Patriot Front protesters gather on the bridge near a drag show that was part of the 2023 Wind River Pride event in Lander. (Courtesy Wind River Pride)

But, Pajunen said the public proclamations could seem like lip service at times, and that Wind River Pride could issue its own rather than wait on officials. Instead of relying on traditional public institutions, she said, they’re turning to community members. 

In Laramie, city council members have passed such a proclamation. Pride event organizers are also working with law enforcement, but also with hired private security and “legal observers.”

“They’re folks that observe [events] neutrally … document in real time what’s happening so that if things get out of hand, we have solid notes to pull from,” Jesse with Laramie PrideFest said. 

The last incident at Laramie’s pride celebrations was two years ago at an event in the park, Jesse said. 

“I think four folks just kind of showed up and silently protested the drag story hour, and then after 20 minutes they left,” he said. “So nothing really escalated, but it just definitely put folks on pause for a moment of like, OK, we weren’t expecting that.”

There are also new rainbow lights on the Downtown Laramie sign. Those were a pivot for pride organizers after foundation members at the Marian H. Rochelle Gateway Center on the University of Wyoming campus — which has colored lights that it uses on occasion — declined a request for those to illuminate, too.

The building had displayed rainbow lights before, but ​​Toby Marlatt with the UW Foundation said that over the last decade, the building has been getting more and more requests for specific colors, including from several disease awareness groups. So in March, there was a decision to stop taking any new requests outside of a few holidays and occasional gold lights for UW, he said. 

This comes after the university closed its DEI office, though the building is operated by the UW Foundation, not the university itself. The decision to stop taking lighting requests was independent of any other decision, Marlatt said. 

It was a bit disappointing for Jesse, who works for the university but spoke on behalf of Laramie PrideFest. While he was happy to bring pride lights into the downtown area, Jesse remembers seeing the rainbow-lit Gateway building in 2016, shortly after the deadly Pulse nightclub shooting.

“I remember driving down Grand and just seeing it lit up and how reaffirming it was to be seen by my community and by the university,” he said. 

A Big Horn Pride celebration was held in Thermopolis, including colorfully decorated baked goods, June 2023. (Scott Alwin)

Back in Casper

As the political climate becomes more polarized toward LQBTQ+ folks, Pollock in Casper encourages supporters and allies to attend events all around the state.

“I just really want to encourage people to obviously show up for our events, but to find their local pride fest, and to show up for that and to be a butt in a seat, a number that adds to the strength of the movement,” she said.

And to address some of the politics head on, Casper Pride is holding an event on Sunday with Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) to talk about former Wyoming U.S. Senator Lester Hunt, whose son’s arrest for being gay and subsequent blackmail preceded the politician’s suicide. 

“So we’re gonna have a panel on that, and just basically how anti-LGBTQ+ policies affect everyone,” she said. 

Events around Wyoming 

Laramie PrideFest

  • June 7
    • Out on the Pasture: University of Wyoming Pride Month Picnic — 4:45 p.m., Prexy’s Pasture
    • Matthew Shepard Candlelight Vigil & Post-Vigil Processing Space — 6:45-9 p.m., Arts and Sciences Plaza
  • June 8
    • PrideFest Yoga — 10-11 a.m., Washington Park
    • Pride on the Patio — 1-3 p.m., Cowgirl Yarn
  • June 9
    • Dungeons & Demis — 12-5 p.m., Accelerated Dragon & Rising Phoenix
  • June 10
    • Social Justice Roundtable — 5:30-7:30 p.m., Canterbury House
  • June 11
    • Stories of Queer Joy in Rural Spaces — 6:30-8:30 p.m., Laramie Railroad Depot
  • June 12
    • Movie Night: But I’m a Cheerleader (1999) — 7-8:30 p.m., doors open at 6:30 p.m., Regal Fox Theater
  • June 13
    • PrideFest Karaoke — 8-10 p.m., The Great Untamed, Ages 21+
  • June 14
    • Blossoming Out West PrideFest Drag Show — 7:30-10:30 p.m., The Collective
  • June 15
    • Pride Proclamation & Visibility March — 9-10:30 a.m., First Street Plaza
    • Pride in the Park — 12-5 p.m., Washington Park
    • Rainbow Road Bar Crawl — 7:30 -11:30 p.m., Downtown Laramie

Casper Pride

  • June 7
    • Trans Community Movie Night — 6-9 p.m., The Center at Melrose, ages 18+
    • Paint with Pride on the Patio — 6-10 p.m., Old Town Family Fun
  • June 8
    • Rainbow Pioneers — 8-10 a.m., Scarlow’s Coffee, ages 50+
    • Pride at David Street Station — 10 a.m.-3 p.m., David Street Station
    • Casper Pride Drag Show — 4-6:30 p.m. and 7:30-10 p.m., Backwards Distillery, ages 21+
    • Sing with Pride — 7-11 p.m., Bourgeois Pig, Ages 13-19
  • June 9
    • Lester’s Legacy: Lessons from an Era of Fear — 9-11 a.m., Art 321
    • March with Pride — 9:30 a.m.-12 p.m., Art 321
    • Battle Royal Smackdown for the Crown Drag Brunch — 11 a.m.- 2 p.m., Racca’s Pizzeria Napoletana, Ages 18+
    • PFlag Pizza Party and Arcade Day — 12-3 p.m., Old Town Family Fun

Rock Springs Pride

  • June 8
    • PrideFest — 11 a.m-3 p.m., Bunning Park

Wind River Pride

  • June 7
    • Houlihan Narratives — 7 p.m., Lander Library Carnegie Room
  • June 8
    • 3rd Annual Drag Show — 6 p.m., Lander Jaycee Park
  • June 9
    • Pride in the Park — 12 p.m., Lander City Park
  • June 18
    • Queers with Quills Poetry — 6 p.m., Lander Art Center
  • June 26
    • Film Screening — 6 p.m., Riverton Library

PFLAG Gillette

  • June 21
    • Evening Paint and Sip — tbd, AVA
  • June 22
    • Early Give Back Mat Class — tbd
    • Evening Pride Picnic — tbd

Big Horn Basin Pride

  • June 8
    • Pride Downtown —1 p.m.
  • June 22
    • SVMMR of Love —7 p.m.-1 a.m. Confetti Heart Studios

Jackson Hole Pride (Incomplete list) 

  • June 15
    • JH Pride Queer Future: Drag Show & Dance Party — 7-11 p.m., Mangy Moose Saloon, Ages 21+
  • June 18
    • Sunset Wildlife Tou — -5:30-9:30 p.m. 
    • Craft Night — 6-8 p.m., StillWest Taproom

Teton Valley Pride

  • June 28
    • All Ages Block Party — 4-9 p.m., Grand Targhee Resort
    • Trap Bar After Party/Dance Party-9 p.m.-12 a.m., Grand Targhee Resort, Ages 21+
  • June 29
    • Organized Outdoor Activities

Pride Cheyenne

  • June 7
    • Pride Karaoke Night with DJ Nepo — 7 p.m., Blue Raven Brewery
  • June 8
    • Pride Pub Crawl
      • Westby Edge — 11 a.m.
      • Blacktooth — 12 p.m.
      • Blue Raven — 1 p.m.
      • Accomplice — 2 p.m.
      • Freedom’s Edge — 3 p.m.
      • Chronicles — 4 p.m.
  • June 29
    • Pride Cheyenne Street Fest — 12-6 p.m., W. 15th and Pioneer Avenue
    • Drag Game Night — 7:30 p.m., Atlas Theatre
    • Railspur — 7 p.m.- 12 a.m., tbd

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.