Democrat Cathy Connolly, left, is the first openly gay state representative… (Miranda Grubbs / Wyoming…)
In an action hailed by gay rights activists as a turning point in a solidly conservative state, a bill that would allow same-sex couples most of the legal rights of heterosexual couples cleared a Wyoming subcommittee by a 7-2 vote and is headed to consideration in the full House.
The sponsor of the bill, State Rep. Cathy Connolly of Laramie, is the first openly gay representative in Wyoming. She is one of only eight Democrats in the 60-member House.
"We passed the first step, but it's a big step," Connolly said in an interview. "In the past, this bill has met failure, even at the subcommittee level."
The bill replaces the word "spouse" in state statutes with the phrase "domestic partner." Connolly testified before the committee Monday that the word "spouse" is used more than 300 times in Wyoming law and that the change would assist same-sex couples in a range of situations, including spousal support, disposing of a deceased partner's property and other family decisions.
The same committee on Monday rejected by a 5-4 vote a bill that would have permitted same-sex marriage. But the one-vote margin also encouraged gay rights advocates.
"That offers hope for the future," said Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, named for the 21-year-old gay University of Wyoming student who was robbed, beaten, tied to a fence and left to die in 1998.
Advocates estimate that 3% of Wyoming's population of just under 560,000 are gay or lesbian.
Opponents objected to both bills on religious grounds.
Republican Rep. Lynn Hutchings, a black woman serving her first term in the state House, called on gays and lesbians to "please stop carpet-bagging on our civil rights movement."
But R. McGreggor Cawley, a political scientist at the University of Wyoming, said the dominant political identity in the state is libertarianism, which is beginning to favor gay rights legislation.
"Most people here want the government to stay out of their private lives and not ban this union or that," he said. "So I think the social conservatives are going to lose this battle. You look at these bills and you see something taking shape. If you're looking for social change, look at the edges, not at the heart."
Connolly said Wyoming was the first state to give women the right to vote, and she hopes for similar thinking in the future.
Nine states and the District of Columbia permit same-sex marriage, and another nine allow some form of civil union or domestic partnership for gays.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.