It was quite educational listening to the debate on HB168 today in the Wyoming House. HB168 is the Domestic Partners Rights and Responsibilities Act. Many of us were surprised when it made it out of committee on a 7-2 vote. That one small victory enable to bill to be aired in public, so both naysayers and supporters could sound off.
Most eloquent of the supporters was Rep. Sue Wallis (R-Recluse). Rep. Wallis is a rancher and cowboy poet, one of the founders of the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko. One of my favorite Wyoming moments was listening to Sue and her late husband, Rod McQueary, talking turns reciting cowboy poetry at a humanities conference two years ago in Riverton.
Rod passed away in December. Rep. Wallis is still grieving. As she works on behalf of her constituents in the Wyoming House, she is missing the Cowboy Poetry Gathering. This year's event celebrates Italian cowboys and their poetry. Wish I was there to hear that. That's what makes Elko so special. The organizers include something new every year. It might be Basque poets or Native Americans or Mexican gauchos or the horsemen of Mongolia.
Rep. Wallis is cut from the same cloth. She thinks big.
She rose in support of HB168. She also is one of the co-sponsors. She recalled that when Rod died in December, she was accorded all courtesies and privileges that attached to being a survivor heterosexual spouse in Wyoming. She was at Rod's side the entire time and saw his out of this world. All the paperwork came to her, as did all property and possessions. Nobody questioned her choices of burial plans.
"I have numerous friends, colleagues and relatives who are in a relationship with members of the same sex," said Rep. Wallis. "Some of these couples have been together for decades. One couple - two elderly gentlemen -- have been together for 40 years." She paused for emphasis. "They are good and decent in every sense of the word."
But something terrible happens at the end of a relationship. "When one of my elderly friends loses his mate, on top of the heartbreak of losing his mate he will have to go through all sorts of contortions to justify himself."
"This is not just in any way, shape or form."
Rep. Wallis knows her Bible. She sounded astonished at some of the comments of the naysayers, people using The Good Book to justify their hatred and prejudices. She cautioned them not to cherry-pick certain passages that may or may not apply to the present situation.
"You don't get to cherry-pick what you like and then deny someone else the opportunity to love in all of its facets," she said, noting that the main tenet of the New Testament was Jesus's words to "love your neighbor as yourself."
But it was a passage from the Old Testament that got her fired up. She noted that some in the House chambers had quoted a passage that referred to a man lying with another man as "an abomination." She quoted some other "abominations" quoted in the Bible. She asked her rancher colleagues to pay particular attention to Leviticus. It's considered an abomination "to not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip the edges of your beard." She wondered aloud how many of Wyoming bearded ranchers knew they were committing abominations with their razors.
Leviticus also warns against "sewing your field with mingled seed" and "mixing your herds."
Said Rep. Wallis: "Maybe you didn't know that cross-breeding your herd for hybrid vigor was an abomination to the Lord."
I'm a city boy. I barely know one end of a cow from another. But Rep. Wallis does. She lives on a family ranch in the most remote part of Campbell County. Her family's been on the land for generations.
She summed things up in a straightforward Wyoming way: "This is about simple common human decency and respect for our fellow human beings."
And then she sat down.