Love Exiles on the Marriage Equality Express

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Wednesday October 6 - Laramie, Wyoming

Wednesday, 6 October - Laramie, Wyoming

We wake up in Rawlins, a Wyoming town of about 9,000 inhabitants. I'm tempting to say it's in the middle of nowhere, but that would be putting down a country town that just happens to be surrounded by miles of seeming emptiness.

My jet lag wakes me at 5 am. It's not just jet lag, it's excitement. I'm thinking about how powerful it is to be with this group of activists, how much we are learning, how many amazing conversations we are having, how much we're sharing and enriching each others' lives, and how much more powerful that will make us when we return home. I'm also thinking of the international dimensions of our campaign for marriage equality, that we're not free until we're all free, that this struggle needs to be won in each and every country. I'm thinking about what's possible with this amazing group of people that is growing more powerful every day.

We leave for Laramie at 8:00 am. Operating on the buddy system, Kara asks me to accompany her to the mini-market next door to the hotel to buy batteries before we leave. We head over and are immediately captivated by the beautiful postcards of Wyoming. While we browse through the postcards (5 for $1), the cashier asks if we're part of the group. Kara explains that we are indeed on the Marriage Equality Express caravan. The cashier says she supports us 100%, that we're all god's children. She has two children, and she loves them both the same. Another unexpected statement of support from the "middle of nowhere". Another family with a gay son. A mother who speaks out about the son she loves. Maybe this place really is somewhere.

Six years ago today, Matthew Shephard was kidnapped and left for dead in a field outside Laramie, Wyoming, by two men he met at a local bar, the Fireside Lounge. The caravan is making a detour to Laramie because we bypassed Salt Lake City. We're headed for the University of Wyoming, where Matt Shephard was a student. We'll hold a mock wedding and speak outdoors outside the student union about marriage equality between classes, when there should be plenty of traffic as students cross campus. We'll hand out marriage equality stickers to passers by and give the an opportunity to sign a petition to President Bush. The petition and signatures are written on a roll of butcher paper which is growing longer by the day. We'll take it to the White House. By that time it may be long enough to wrap around the block at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

University of Wyoming

We arrive early and have an opportunity to get a cup of tea while the groups hosting us set up for the event. Two of our couples, a lesbian couple wearing the same white dresses and lace stockings they wore at their own wedding 10 years ago, and a gay couple decked out in tuxes, will be married along with a local heterosexual couple.

I'm feeling a little apprehensive about being near the scene of one of the most shocking and horrific hate crimes in recent memory. We've prepared by watching a film and we've heard that the community has moved on from those dark days of 1998. Still, my biases about what people in this part of the world are like are very present.

I'm to speak, along with several other riders, after the wedding ceremony. It's cold, 42 degrees Fahrenheit, and the brides shiver, as do many of the rest of us. Indoors in the student union the head is cranked up and it's uncomfortably warm. Outdoors it is definitely "lekker fris" ("crisp" weather). Laramie is at the peak of autumn, the leaves are a beautiful shade of yellow, and winter is just around the corner. We're told that autumn is so short in Laramie that the leaves usually turn color and fall to the ground within a couple of days. This year nature is presenting us with an extended festival of color.

We talk with students as they stop to hear about the caravan and sign the petition. They're curious to learn about the rights of marriage and the need for immigration reform. They like Laramie, telling me it's the best town in Wyoming, but aren't sure they want to settle here. Maybe somewhere a little more diverse.

A sole protester holds a sign. (I ignored him and can't remember what it said.) By the time the wedding starts, 200 have gathered for the rally. It's our largest turnout so far.

The wedding is moving, and I'm near tears as I see these long-term, loving couples (15 and 17 years together), recite their vows yet again, clearly moved themselves by the experience. They'll keep getting married until it's legal. Aside from breaking down discrimination, I'm reminded that marriage equality is about giving all couples the opportunity to make a commitment and express that commitment in front of family and friends. This time it's the community we've formed on the caravan that witnesses with love their vows of commitment, along with the local Laramie community.

We're speaking outdoors without a mike, and as I start my talk I get signals from the riders in the audience to speak louder. I shout out at the top of my voice, "I'm a love exile. I live in the Netherlands because I can't live in the United States with my spouse". It feels good to shout this message. What is up when a country forces those who love to leave, that withdraws the welcome mat for loving committed spouses and children? I explain that there are only 16 countries in the world that allow a US citizen to sponsor a same-sex partner for immigration - and the United States is not yet one of those countries. I end with a warning to students: there are foreign students here on campus, and if you fall in love with someone of the same sex, you may find yourself a love exile.

We head upstairs for our next event: a panel discussion. The speakers explain that there are 1,138 federal rights associated with marriage and more than 300 state rights, rolling out a list of these rights that stretches 40 meters out the door, across the hall, and into far corner of the ballroom across the hallway.

Wendy and Belinda speak of immigration equality, of preparing to leave the country if partner immigration does not become a reality very soon. Our PFLAG parents, Eve and Jim, speak eloquently of their pain and anger of having a daughter who is deemed a second class citizen in her own home country. Our hosts are wonderful. This stop was no accident. We're meant to be here today. Laramie is receiving us with love, acceptance and generosity. The LGBT groups and women's center are honored to have hosted us and in this encounter we have
contributed much to us and we to them.

Our next stop is the Fireside Lounge, where Matt Shephard went for a drink exactly 6 years ago today. Six years ago this afternoon, he was still alive and going about his normal business.

But before we leave the campus, we're met by the former Chief of Police of Laramie, who shares with us his 180 degree shift from being a homophobe at the time Matt was killed, to being a supporter of civil rights for same-sex couples. He boards the bus so speak, sharing his transformation, simply and with emotion. His tears flow, moving us yet again on this very emotional day. He tells us that Matt's mom Judy Shephard decided she had to grab the window of opportunity to speak out about what had happened and raise awareness of hate discrimination - and that six years later, that window is still open thanks to this amazing woman who suffered such a huge loss and decided to speak up through her pain. There are few dry eyes in the bus as he wishes us a safe journey and thanks us for our visit.

The Fireside Lounge

We drive over to the Fireside Lounge for a service to be performed by the two Unitarian Universalist ministers on the caravan, Helen and John. The bar is no longer in operation, and a For Sale sign hangs out in front. We gather on the patio and they a candle and speak words addressing the pain, anger and sadness we all feel. Tears flow. We sing, and more tears flow. We share what Matt's death and what it mean for us. We speak about the goodness that came out of it, the awareness, the memorials and incredible work is mother Judy Shephard continues to do to give a public face to hate discrimination. The last chorus of the last song is about how powerful we are. I walk back to the bus in tears. A local woman on her bicycle stops when she hears us singing. She's delighted to find us, on her way home. She wears a rainbow flag on her hat. Her big smiles and support are the perfect ending to our visit to Laramie.

We're tired and the energy level is dropping. Our next stop is Cheyenne - an event at the Unitarian Universalist church and dinner before the drive to Denver for another event tonight. It's a full day. Our 4 pm event starts at 5:30, and we're running very late. The speakers share from their hearts and touch all of us. We're getting really good at opening up and sharing our pain in a way that moves us and others to work for full equality. We ask people to take action, to let the people in their lives know about the need for marriage equality. It's their action that is going to make a difference in this community.

The sharing lifts my spirits enormously. What a day we have had. Laramie, once the epicenter of hate, today the epicenter of love. Meeting the Laramie community who have gone through this terrible tragedy and come out the other end.

Time for bed?

No way. We have a two hour bus ride to Denver, followed by an event organized at a local gay club. Immigration Equality has been invited and encouraged to attend. Much as I would like to go to bed early, I'll join this evening event.

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