It's tempting to think there are two gay Americas, one frightened and one fabulous, a merely gay America and a fully Queer America. An America where the gay bars darken their windows to hide ashamed patrons, and an America where straight people stand in line to get into gay clubs. An America where the June 26 Supreme Court decision legalizing sodomy had more than symbolic consequences, since gay sex was still a crime in 13 states. And an America where instead of arresting gays, the police help clear the streets every June for pride parades, which of course include contingents of gay cops.
Over the past few months, we've seen a lot of the latter nation. One much discussed TV show has offered a stylized world in which a queer eye can be cast upon a straight guy and not end up blackened; on another program, Boy Meets Boy, some straight men actually pretend to be gay.
In this oversimplified polarity, Wyoming sits in the heart of that first gay America. The two straight men who most famously pretended to be gay in this state were Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, who--five years ago this week--got Matthew Shepard into a truck, tied him to a fence outside Laramie, beat him into an unrecognizable shell and left him to die. Though robbery and drugs may have been other factors, Henderson and McKinney were also teaching Shepard a lesson about what happens when you bring a little bit of Queer America to the other one.
But five years later, that other America--the quiet gay frontier of Wyoming and other places where cowboy boots and work shoes far outnumber Prada slides--is becoming less frightened. In part because Shepard was attacked here, and in part because of its live-and-let-live ideal, Wyoming has even become something of a national laboratory in which gays and straights are learning--ever haltingly, now a step forward, now a lurch back--to live together.
If you want to understand the future of gay politics, forget Fire Island, N.Y., and West Hollywood, Calif. Come instead to Cody, Wyo., at Yellowstone's doorstep, where a national gay-straight alliance, the Republican Unity Coalition (R.U.C.), was founded two years ago and counts former President Gerald Ford among its board members. Or visit Casper, Wyo.--hometown of Vice President Dick Cheney, who has warmly embraced his openly lesbian daughter Mary--where Guy Padgett III, a member of the city council, decided last week to come out publicly for the first time, in this article. Or drive through the Medicine Bow National Forest to much maligned Laramie. It's actually the Berkeley of Wyoming, the only town in the state with a four-year university, a place that has always had a liberal aura and today is home to Spectrum, one of the most vibrant gay college groups in the West.