In a dramatic March 1 vote, the Wyoming House Rules Committee killed a bill that would have allowed the state to deny recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states or countries.
A state house committee hearing was highlighted by testimony opposing the bill by two conservative Republican legislators. “It was quite a dramatic hearing, the most dramatic one of the session that I was in,” says Dan Neal, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, a good government advocacy group that opposed the legislation.One of the Republicans, 27-year-old Rep. Dan Zwonitzer of Cheyenne, has become something of a celebrity in the blogosphere for his testimony. He says, “I’m not sure I expected the attention I’ve gotten. I expected about 15 minutes of fame, but it’s turned into two weeks.”
The fame is not always welcome. “The first cell phone call I got this morning was from a guy who wouldn’t identify himself. He called me a girly-man and ‘not a real Republican,'” Zwonitzer says.
Though not a member of the committee considering the legislation, Zwonitzer testified against the bill, saying that gay rights is the civil rights struggle of his generation:
Under a democracy the civil rights struggle continues today, where we have one segment of our society trying to restrict rights and privileges from another segment of our society. My parents raised me to know that this is wrong.
It is wrong for one segment of society to restrict rights and freedoms from another segment of society. I believe many of you have had this conversation with your children.
And children have listened, my generation, the twenty-somethings, and those younger than I understand this message of tolerance. And in 20 years, when they take the reins of this government and all governments, society will see this issue overturned, and people will wonder why it took so long.
My kids and grandkids will ask me, why did it take so long? And I can say, hey, I was there, I discussed these issues, and I stood up for basic rights for all people.
But equally dramatic — and perhaps more surprising — was the testimony of conservative Republican Rep. Pat Childers of Cody. Childers’ daughter is gay. “My testimony was clearly stating that I oppose the legislation because I just think it is flat wrong,” he says.
Childers also compared gay rights to earlier civil rights efforts. “People say you can’t compare gays with blacks. I disagree. Do we deny a class of people their rights? I say, ‘No.'”
The bill, which was known only as Senate File 13, had passed the Wyoming Senate by a vote of 21-to-8. In the House, it was assigned to the Rules committee, which has a larger-than-normal contingent of 13 members. ESPC’s Neal says, “Hanging over it was the ghost of Matt Shepard,” the gay man who was brutally murdered in Laramie in 1998.
Jason Marsden, executive director of Wyoming Conservation Voters and a gay activist, said, “I think that will color the perception of Wyoming’s gay community for a long time.”
Marsden, who also testified at the House hearing on SF 13, credited Zwonitzer’s forceful speech for helping to turn the tide in the committee. “I think he had an awful lot to do with it,” Marsden says. “He gave a really nice speech. It was kind of breathtaking in the room.”
But Marsden also gave credit to the political savvy of House Speaker Roy Cohee, R-Casper. “His wisdom in sending it to the Rule Committee was evident,” he says. “He made sure that it got a full hearing. It was really cool. There were loads of people there, ordinary people who came to speak against it, which was really nice to see.
“The whole tone of the opponents of the bill was very respectful and polite, in contrast tot he ugly and accusatory stuff that was said about us,” Marsden says. “I think committee members noticed the difference in tone.” Cohee himself cast the tie-breaking vote against the legislation in the committee.
But Marsden also doubts that Wyoming has seen the last of the effort to further restrict gay marriage. “It’s definitely not the end of it,” he says, “The people coming out of the hearing were angry. It’s been back every year for three or four years now … But we’re gonna be the Equality State for another year or so.”
SF 13 was killed by the House Rules Committee 7-to-6.