CHEYENNE, Wyo. - Wyoming has become the latest state to allow same-sex unions, bringing the wave of legalizations to a place where the 1998 beating death of Matthew Shepard galvanized a national push for gay rights.
Gay couples began to apply for marriage licenses Tuesday morning, albeit far more quietly than in other states where bans were recently struck down.
Hundreds of same-sex couples in Idaho and Nevada flooded clerk's offices and courthouses in recent weeks and married immediately afterward to cheering crowds.
In Wyoming, however, only a handful of couples received licenses across the state as the change went into effect.
In the state's largest city, Cheyenne, two couples were licensed right away, and Jennifer Mumaugh and A.J. McDaniel became the first gay couple to legally marry in the state's most populous county.
Mumaugh said attitudes in Wyoming have shifted in recent years to be more open to gay couples. She said she expected gay marriage to eventually become legal, but didn't expect it to happen so quickly.
"With Wyoming being the Equality State, it's kind of like, 'Well, duh,'" she said. "But Wyoming does have a stigma. I'm surprised with the progress of the state and that of the people throughout the state over time."
About 175 miles north, in Casper, Dirk Andrews and Travis Gray were the first of three couples licensed after the state formally dropped its defence of a law defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
"It's surreal," Andrews said. "We can't believe it's happening."
They plan to marry in a ceremony in few weeks and say they, too, have experienced support.
"Neighbours and friends have been great," said Andrews, a kindergarten teacher. "Co-workers, for the most part, if they don't agree, they just don't talk about it, but they haven't been mean or negative about it."
Andrews and Gray, as well as Mumaugh and McDaniel, had considered going out of state to wed, but held off in hopes that gay marriage would finally come to Wyoming, a state shadowed by Shepard's death for the last 16 years. The gay college student was robbed, beaten and left tied to a fence in freezing weather. He died Oct. 12, days after the attack.
"There's definitely people who are holding up his memory and, I hope, feeling like we're coming a long way," said Rev. Audette Fulbright, who has long performed non-binding ceremonies for gay couples in Cheyenne.
Wyoming has now joined several other politically conservative states in allowing gay marriage after a series of recent court rulings have struck down state bans as unconstitutional.
More than 30 states now recognize same-sex unions, many — including Alaska and Arizona — coming in changes triggered by a U.S. Supreme Court decision Oct. 6 that refused to hear appeals from states that wanted to defend gay marriage bans.
Gay rights supporters have said bans on same-sex unions are violations of 14th Amendment protections that guarantee equal protection under the law and due process. Opponents have said the issue should be decided by states and voters, not courts.