My plans for Wyoming started with research about the 1998 torture and murder of a gay University of Wyoming student named Matthew Shepard. His murder sparked outrage, and brought attention that helped enact hate crime legislation at the federal level and in many states, but not in Wyoming. Yet I suspected that this tragic incident may have encouraged people who didn’t fit traditional gender and sexual orientation norms to start being more vocal, or less secretive, about their own perceptions of self. I reached out to people at Wyoming Equality and the Rainbow Resource Center at the University of Wyoming, and decided to try to view Wyoming through the lens of “queerness,” which is meant to encompass gay, ace, demi, panromantic bi, trans, asexual, lesbian, and much more, including straight allies. Halfway through the assignment, Maurice Watson, who I had photographed rehearsing a dance performance, said to me, “I am a gay man. I am a man who has always loved the attention and touch of a man. I wouldn't consider myself queer.” I conceded there’s no proper word to sum up this varied space. It was a pleasure to wander through a territory like Wyoming, that has long been associated with straight archetypes, and look against the grain.
The late nineteenth century painter Frederic Remington’s images affirmed the romantic image of the west as a place for white men conquering a wild landscape on horseback, and this image has long persisted in popular national culture. These photographs present a different fiction of the west, one that allows men to occupy domestic spaces, frees women to show their skin and bodies in public without fear of retribution, a place where bodies transition to what they want to be and where women fall in love with each other by learning to touch.
Matt Hockersmith, whose parents were raised on Wyoming homesteads, said realizing as a child that he was gay sent him into a crisis. “I had a gun, and at one point I felt I would rather have died than have someone find out. But that's when the Internet was coming around, and I started researching, and meeting people online, and realized, ok I’m not alone I’m just in a small town, and that's when I started thinking, OK I just have to go, I just have to leave.” So he went to New York and lived for a while. “I was so afraid I was going to come back here and just fall over, its so vast and empty,” he said. “Then I went to the bluffs one afternoon, and overlooking the farm I was like, holy shit, I live here! NY was good for me like that, to remind me how mystical this place is, you know, my ancestors’ energy is here.” Now he is out and accepted, which is fine as long as he’s single. “I met someone 12 miles away, and we hit it off, but I said look, I’m totally out, and he couldn’t handle that, he’s still very much in the closet, so it’s tricky.”
Jonas Slonaker, who lived in Laramie when Matthew Shepard was killed outside of town, recalls, “Afterwards, some people came out, some people went deeper in the closet, but everyone felt guilty to some degree. I was at the grocery store one day and I saw this couple, and a guy said to his girlfriend, ‘Oh that guy is such a faggot.’ And his girlfriend says to him, ‘Honey, we can’t say that in public anymore.’ ….. I was like, what? I just laughed about it. So it’s different now, but maybe not really.”
(Carolyn Drake, 2016)