A collision of values in rural West
There is some-thing irrepressibly Western about this modest town on Wyoming's high plains.
Perhaps it's the Medicine Bow Mountains, always looming on the horizon. Or the cowboy honky-tonks that line town streets. Or maybe it's the dust and relentless wind - so strong it can strip the paint off cars.
For most people in Laramie, Wyo., this Western character is a point of pride. It's a rugged, individualist ethos that helped Wyoming become the first territory to give women the vote. Yet some say it is also a culture of macho intolerance that fosters the prejudices that led to the fatal beating of a gay student here last October.
Tomorrow, the first of two men accused of killing Matthew Shepard goes to trial in one of the most important cases in Wyoming history. For the West, it's a test of the "live and let live" philosophy as homosexuals become more open. For America, it's an indicator that, while gay advocates have made gains in cities, small towns remain a frontier where values often clash with alternative lifestyles.
"More and more [homosexuals] are saying, 'I want to come out here, where I like to live,' " says Walter Williams, an anthropology professor at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. He says the cycle of greater openness - leading to a backlash, which leads to homosexuals fighting back - is still going on in cities. But it may be just beginning in small towns.
And some observers believe that particular elements of the Western culture may make it harder for homosexuals to live there. The West still holds to its libertarian philosophy, says Annette Kolodny, a professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson, but it draws the line at what she calls an antigay, cowboy code.
"You allow people to do whatever they want to do," she says, "as long as it doesn't affect you, and affect that masculinized, heterosexual West."
If that is true, open homosexuality may come to small towns in the West only through a give-and-take that has long been playing out in larger cities.
Although big cities were hardly welcoming of homosexuals back in the 1940s and '50s, their sheer size allowed for anonymity. Then in the 1960s, suppression led to a gay civil rights movement that included the New York Stonewall riots.
By the 1990s, homosexuality has become more tolerated in mainstream America, with television shows such as "Ellen" and "Will & Grace." Some homosexuals moved back to small towns. And some, such as Shepard, who was from Casper, Wyo., did not feel the need to leave.
Despite this, "[Shepard] took a much bigger risk than if he had been at New York University or [UC] Berkeley," says Judith Stacey, a professor of sociology at USC. She says Western individualism may give rise to both extremes of tolerance and anger, such as militia groups.
Ironically, though, Laramie is widely considered Wyoming's most liberal city. Home to the University of Wyoming, Laramie is part college town, with one guidebook describing it as "collegiate coffee-shop chic with cowboy grit."
Indeed, a healthy sprinkling of trendy cafes and hair salons sit not far from a railroad depot where silver grain cars and tankers fill the tracks.
A shocked town responds
That's one reason why Laramie residents are so shocked that such a brutal crime could have happened here. "We are a live-and-let-live culture," says the Rev. Stephen Johnson, head of the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of Laramie. "Laramie did not produce these two perpetrators."
University president Philip Dubois and others stand by the notion of Western tolerance, and say individuals commit crimes, not towns. "Who is responsible for this? The people who did it," says Mr. Dubois. "We share responsibility only to the extent we failed to speak out against it."
Dubois points to teach-ins, vigils, and memorial ribbons distributed throughout the city as evidence of town and university concern in the face of Shepard's death. The chamber of commerce has a small but prominent flier on the front door that reads "Violence is not a Laramie value."
Yet Laramie still embodies some small-town conservatism, says the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship's Mr. Johnson. He points to the fact that the Laramie City Council did not pass a hate-crimes ordinance in the wake of Shepard's death. Wyoming and other Western states also failed to enact bias crimes laws, as many had hoped. Lawmakers argued that existing criminal laws were sufficient.
Regardless, the prized ideal of the live-and-let-live West is one that may need to be revised, says Professor Williams. "You still have that heritage.... [But] you have much less of that than you had on the frontier."