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Very Much at Home: A Gay Mayor in Wyoming


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Very Much at Home: A Gay Mayor in Wyoming

NY Times


December 16, 2005


Mayor Guy Padgett

CASPER, Wyo., Dec. 15 - Guy Padgett, the openly gay mayor here in Wyoming's second-largest city, had a tough time getting to his table for dinner at a restaurant the other night, interrupted and detained every few feet by a friend, a constituent or some other well-wisher who wanted to shake his hand.

Though neither he nor many other people here have seen it yet, Mr. Padgett says he feels pretty sure that "Brokeback Mountain," the new movie about gay cowboys in Wyoming, will not change those old rhythms of glad-handing very much. People here, he thinks, have gotten past seeing him as gay; to most of them he is now just Guy.

"I like to say that Casper, and Wyoming in general, are places willing to judge you on your accomplishments and contributions rather than any aspect of your character, and I have found that to be true," he said.

Mr. Padgett's career - he is also the executive director of the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra, and at 27 the city's youngest mayor ever - puts to rest, he and other prominent people here say, the idea that rugged Western individualism and homophobia are synonymous. Alan K. Simpson, a Republican who served 18 years in the United States Senate and still creates a wide political wake in the state, has been among his most vocal supporters.

"Guy came out, and he's the mayor," Mr. Simpson said in a telephone interview. "This is about awareness and tolerance, not stereotypes."

Casper, with a population of 51,000 and a rough-edged downtown that serves as an urban center for much of the booming oil, gas and coal industry of eastern Wyoming, is probably nobody's idea of a gay-culture magnet. There is not a single gay bar, and not much evidence that gay investors and homeowners are boosting local fortunes as they are in some other cities.

Nor, people who track Wyoming politics say, is Casper the most liberal place in the state. That distinction belongs to Jackson, with its Hollywood-in-the-Tetons culture, followed by Laramie, home of the University of Wyoming. Casper's economy and population, those experts say, still hark back to Wyoming's tougher roots of ranching and mining that long predate the finer points of tourism or higher education.

And it should be noted as well that Casper chooses its mayors by vote of the nine-member nonpartisan City Council. His homosexuality already known, Mr. Padgett was chosen unanimously - but by proxy of the voters through their council members, not by the voters themselves.

Even so, that Casper appears to have largely accepted, if not embraced, a gay man as its civic spokesman is considered by many people here to be a very profound thing, even a very Wyoming thing. Movies come and go. Here, real life happened.

There have been changes, Mr. Padgett says, including his own election, that are linked in one way or another to the death of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming whose killing, in 1998 at the hands of two men he had met in a bar, shocked the nation.

Mr. Padgett met Mr. Shepard in junior high school and came out about his own sexual orientation in a magazine interview five years after the murder. Mr. Padgett's partner, Jason Marsden, who was a reporter for The Casper Star-Tribune at the time of the killing, came out in an op-ed column even as his paper was covering the crime.

Mr. Shepard is buried here. And Casper, many say, has probably carried the discussion of what the crime meant, and what it revealed, further than just about any other place.

"People did a lot of soul-searching," Mr. Padgett said.

Some think the city arrived in the wrong place from that soul search.

Murray Watson, a 64-year-old rancher who lives 30 miles away and was in town on Thursday to shop, said Mr. Padgett's election was a dark day for Casper.

"I wouldn't live in this town because of it," Mr. Watson said.

As for the movie, he wants it to be the biggest flop ever. "I hope it breaks the movie company," he said.

Other people said the film's gay-cowboy theme would be a bigger deal outside Wyoming than in places like Casper, because the outside world, they say, has locked in stereotypes about the state that the movie can play with and shatter. Here, they say, many people will yawn, or chuckle.

Mr. Padgett, whose single term expires next month, said that he did not think there would be any backlash against gay men in Casper as a result of "Brokeback Mountain," when it eventually does play in theaters here, but that there probably would not be any positive change, either.

"I suspect people will probably just see it as a movie," he said.

What will also not change, he said, is Wyoming culture, in which a pronounced libertarian streak - I'll mind my business, you mind yours - can sometimes be hard to read. If people are less likely to judge, Mr. Padgett said, that can sometimes just mean they are turning away.

"It's live and let live," he said. "Sometimes that equates to acceptance, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes live and let live just means distance."

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