When Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) visited Greybull High School in northern Wyoming on April 20, a student asked him a question at a preplanned question-and-answer session: “What work are you and your comrades doing to improve the life of the LGBT community in Wyoming? How do you plan to help Wyoming live up to its name as ‘The Equality State?’”
Enzi's answer? Essentially, that Wyoming needs “a little civility between people,” rather than laws.
“Well, there are a lot of problems that don’t have a federal, one-size-fits-all solution,” Enzi said, according to a local newspaper, the Greybull Standard. “Everything can’t be done by law; that’s one of the problems we have in this country, thinking that everything could be done by law. What we need to have is a little civility between people.”
Then, he got a little more specific.
“We always say, in Wyoming you can be just about anything you want to be, as long as you don’t push it in somebody’s face,” Enzi said. “I know a guy who wears a tutu and goes to bars on Friday night and is always surprised that he gets in fights. Well, he kind of asks for it a little bit. That’s the way that he winds up with that kind of a problem.”
Enzi's initial point, that not all problems have a federal solution, is a common refrain from small-government Republicans who want Washington to stay out of everyday life as much as possible — and an especially prevalent view in Western states, where distrust of the federal government runs back to the 19th century. Here, Enzi casts discrimination against LGBT citizens as more of a moral issue than a legal one.
The problem is, while attitudes about gay people in society have evolved in recent years, “a little civility between people” has historically not been enough to protect LGBT citizens, even in Wyoming. It was just across the state, near Laramie, where Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, was tortured and beaten to death in 1998, prompting a national conversation about hate crimes and hate crime legislation.
And in the latter part of Enzi's answer, in which he discusses a man who apparently gets in fights at bars based on his nonconformative clothing choices, because he “kind of asks for it,” critics see the kind of rhetoric used to brush aside sexual assault victims.
Enzi did go on to urge students not to bully each other for wearing different clothes — but the damage had already been done.
Enzi issued a statement to the HuffPost in which he clarified his answer:
I believe all individuals should be treated with respect. I do not believe that anyone should be bullied, intimidated or attacked because of their beliefs. Wyoming’s population is made so great by its mixture — and tolerance — of differing value and belief systems. Our live and let live approach is one of the great aspects of our state. It is important that our students learn that the importance of respecting all people and how it is incumbent on those in the communities we live in to treat others as you would want to be treated. It is such a simple lesson ― it is never permissible to hurt another. Hatred in any form is destructive to the very foundation upon which our society is built.
No person, including LGBT individuals, should feel unsafe in their community. My message was intended specifically to be about promoting respect and tolerance toward each other. I hope if people look at the entirety of my speech, they will understand that. I regret a poor choice of words during part of my presentation. None of us is infallible and I apologize to anyone who has taken offense. No offense was intended. Quite the opposite in fact, and so I ask for your understanding as well.
Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the Greybull Standard as the high school's student newspaper.