Just miles away from the murder site of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old college student who was killed in a hate crime against the LGBTQ community, a biker bar thought to profit from the town’s homophobia. For years, the owner of the Eagle’s Nest, located in Cheyenne, sold shirts that said “In Wyoming, we have a cure for AIDS. We shoot fuck’n faggots.” In addition to the text, the shirt depicts a man in a biker jacket aiming a gun.
The shirts garnered national attention after photos of them circulated around Facebook, leading members of equality groups in the state to approach the bar owner. According to The Washington Post, Sara Burlingame, executive director of Wyoming Equality, an LGBTQ advocacy group, confronted the bar owner regarding the shirts when she first became aware of them, but was unsuccessful in getting him to stop selling them.
“We are sad to say that we failed to convince a local bar to pull these shirts from circulation,” said Wyoming Equality in a Facebook post Saturday. “We hoped that they would choose to stop selling them when they realized the harm it did to the LGBTQ community and those living with AIDS.”
At the time of the post, the organization did not mention the bar’s name out of fear of “the sad reality that giving them exposure will help them sell more shirts. I’m not in the business of helping bigots make money off of the pain of my community,” Burlingame said in a press release Monday.
But despite Wyoming Equality not mentioning the name, the bar sold out of the shirts and Ray Bereziuk, the bar’s owner, told The Cheyenne Post Monday that he did not plan to sell more shirts because he’s “in the bar business, not the apparel business.” The fact that he no longer wanted to sell them because he was sold out rather than stop when Burlingame requested it reflects the ideology Bereziuk must have. Bereziuk did not mention why he was not reordering the shirts, but shared he would not bend to social media pressure.
In a comment on their original Facebook post, Wyoming Equality said that it was working with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s largest LGBTQ organization, to contact the bar’s alcohol distributors and “see if they are ok with working with an establishment selling these types of items.”
According to The Cheyenne Post, Bereziuk began selling them in 1998 after Shepard’s murder. Shepard was beaten, robbed, and then tied to a barbed-wire fence and left to die in 1998. His murder prompted state and federal lawmakers to pass hate crime bills nationwide. However, Wyoming has not passed any anti-hate legislation.
In an interview with the Star-Tribune, Shepard’s mother noted this, lamenting that the state has had 22 years to pass hate crime legislation, but has failed to do so.
“It is time for Wyoming to face reality and recognise that we are losing our youth, our economic potential and our soul. The time to take a stand is now, not after another family loses their child,” she said.
This isn’t the first bar to sell offensive t-shirts, the Post reported. The Parallel Wine & Whiskey Bar in Virginia received backlash for selling shirts that said “Drunk Wives Matter” in June 2020. The shirts followed the murder of George Floyd, which prompted protests worldwide against racial injustice under the Black Lives Matter movement. The bar stopped selling the shirts.
Despite the lack of hate crime bills in the state, the response has been strong and supportive of the LGBTQ community. “Every year, the city welcomes close to 3 million visitors from every walk of life. They come to Cheyenne and discover the history of equality, ingenuity and hospitality in our city and state. This type of shirt does not represent the community we live in,” Domenic Bravo, the director of Visit Cheyenne, said in a press release.
Multiple state legislators across party lines have also condemned the shirts in public statements including Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican.
“It’s incredibly disheartening to learn that any business would offer a product for sale with a message like this,” Gordon said in a statement to The Casper Star-Tribune. “This hurtful rhetoric is not reflective of our state’s values, and does nothing but promote hate and division.”
We can only hope this anger that the community is expressing encourages lawmakers to finally make a move on anti-LGBTQ legislation in the state.
Despite the hurtful rhetoric clearly present, Burlingame said this is an opportunity for people in Wyoming to become inspired and take action in protecting LGBTQ individuals in their state. “Want to make it unpopular to be a bigot? Donate to Wyoming Equality or Wyoming AIDS Assistance. Put a pride flag up in your business or home. Wear one of our cool AF shirts. Pass a Hate Crime bill. Invest in queer joy and resilience,” she wrote on Facebook. “Let the haters hate in their own misery. Keep Wyoming queer and wild.”