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RIVERTON — A high school student knew intolerance existed in this town of roughly 11,000 long before a local radio host’s homophobic remarks thrust LGBTQ issues into the spotlight.

Cheerleader Elisabeth Carey had always felt it was smarter to keep her secret — the one about liking girls — mostly to herself until she graduated. Who wants to make high school any harder? she said.

But she was ill equipped to deal with the consequences when someone spray-painted “LESBO” in large red letters across the passenger’s side of Carey’s car and let her drive the graffitti through town, unawares.

Carey has bright eyes and a smile that hovers in person and breaks through in photographs — especially the ones taken with family members. WyoFile has given her a pseudonym to protect her privacy as a minor. A member of a Wind River Indian Reservation tribe, Carey belongs to a large multigenerational family and likes to go hunting with her father — a big man and a law enforcement officer.

Along with wanting a drama-free high school experience, it was fear of how her hunting partner might react that had kept Carey quiet, she said. She confided only in a few friends and trusted teachers about her sexual orientation.

“I wasn’t ready to tell my Dad,” Carey said. “I was getting there … but I wasn’t ready to tell my grandparents or my uncles or my aunts or anything. I was just going to wait until I was older because it would be easier. I wouldn’t have people my age judging me about it and it would be easier for my family to accept me.”

Her mother and father didn’t know she was gay, she thought. Except they really did know, they told her later, or at least had a pretty good guess. They were content to wait on Carey to broach the subject.

“When she was ready,” her mother said. “And she wasn’t.”

Carey still wasn’t ready on the morning of January 27.

She parked her car in the Riverton High School school gymnasium lot and spent the day on the sidelines of the Ron Thon Memorial Wrestling tournament. It’s a big event that garners statewide attention. Cheerleaders don’t do their routines at the event, Carey said, but instead wear sweatpants and t-shirts and help sell raffle tickets and hand out medals.

She spent all day inside the building, then walked back to her silver Chevy sedan.

“I didn’t check my passenger’s side, because why would you?” she said. “I just got in and I drove home.”

If Carey had chosen that day to tell her father she was gay, which she hadn’t, she certainly would not have chosen to start the conversation by spray-painting “LESBO” on her car.

But someone had chosen for her. The word was there, unbeknownst to Carey as she drove major Riverton thoroughfares across town toward home.

The word stretched in thick red lines from the rear wheel-well, across both doors to under the sideview mirror and from the bottom of the windows nearly to the base of the car’s frame. She hadn’t seen it. No one she passed could miss it.

Her secret, paraded across town.

It certainly wasn’t missed by her father, standing in their snowy yard.

“I seen her coming around the corner and I could just see it written on the side of her car,” her father remembered.

“Did you see this?” he asked once she parked.

“I saw what it was and I went inside,” Carey remembered. “And then I remember just like freaking out.”

She screamed. She cried. “She had a complete meltdown,” her mother said. Carey tried to leave the home and go back to school to find those responsible. Her father refused to let her go, at times physically restraining her.

She didn’t go back to school for two days.

“I wasn’t stable enough,” she said.

Carey knew who had vandalized her car, she said. She believes it was a girl she’d once considered her best friend, and another girl. They had learned Carey’s secret and been mocking her for it. The vandalism wasn’t the end of the aggression, Carey said.

“They would just always find a way to make sure I saw them and make sure I saw that they were laughing at me,” she said. “Make sure I saw that they were pointing at me.”

Carey and her parents reported the incident to the school, but the girls were never punished. School officials told the family they couldn’t prove who the culprits were.

“We would love to be able to identify clearly who did that so we could take action,” Terry Snyder, the superintendent of Carey’s school district, told WyoFile. Officials have not given up investigating the incident, he said. “It’s tragic to me that somebody would paint that on her car, the emotional impact that has on a person has to be very, very significant”

The family has not been satisfied with the school’s response, they told WyoFile. Eventually, they say, Carey stood up to her bullies herself. The result was an altercation in the school hallway — a fight that she won, Carey said.

But being forced out of the closet pushed Carey into a depression, according to Carey and her parents. “I was super paranoid, super depressed,” Carey said.

Going to school felt like walking around with a target on her back: “It’s like I’m an open book that everybody just gets to read and use,” she said. Her grades fell off and for a while she was failing some of her classes.

Carey is healing with time, in no small part thanks to the affection of her sprawling family. It hasn’t changed since they found out she was gay. “We have such a huge circle of relations and you love and accept each other,” Carey’s mother said.

At school Carey lost some friends, she said, but gained new ones. She drew a circle of supporters around herself. “They would do anything to protect me,” she said.

One day, she again found writings on her car — this time they were affirmations, written in Sharpie.

“You’re a perfect ray of sunshine,” “have pride we love you,” and “you’re perfect just the way you are” occupied the same side of her car that once bore her secret and threatened to tear her life apart. The notes had been written by her cheerleading teammates. A photo from the day shows the team huddled around Carey in front of the car, smiling warmly.

But tensions in the school still simmered.

In April, another Riverton High School student posted a photograph on Facebook. In it he stood in front of a painting of a rainbow-striped heart with the words LGBTQ+ painted in the middle of it.

The painting was a message of support for LGBTQ students at the school, Carey said, one of two on the walls. She didn’t know who had painted them.

She liked it. “It felt more welcoming,” she said “Those paintings just kind of made it feel like I could be accepted.”

But the student’s Facebook post shows him holding up two middle fingers and a yellow ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flag. A version of the post obtained by WyoFile shows the photo accompanied by a caption with a homophobic slur. The student who posted it has been suspended, Carey said.

The paintings have since been removed.

“It was a painting that was done without approval of the teacher and the content of the painting wasn’t the issue with us it was just that it hadn’t been approved,” superintendent Snyder said. “We want people to be able to share their beliefs and their thoughts but that wasn’t how we want that to be done.”

According to Carey, students have been offered the chance to replace the paintings with a poster offering an LGBTQ message if they want. She’s not interested.

“It’s just too big of a deal to some students,” she said. “I’m not there to start drama with my peers. I’m just there to graduate and get out.”

Carey would like to become a nurse, she said. She hopes to study at Central Wyoming College in Riverton and then once she has acquired her nursing degree, move away.

“This whole town is really close-minded,” she said.

Her father isn’t so sure.

“Everything’s way better after high school,” he said.

Like Carey after the Ron Thon, superintendent Snyder was in for an ambush.

On April 25, he went to a studio at the Wind River Radio Network for his biweekly appearance on The Morning Buzz, a talk show hosted by John Birbari, a longtime presence in local media and a former chairman of the Fremont County Republican Party.

The two men do an on-air interview after Snyder’s meetings with the school board, the superintendent later wrote in an email to his staff, in order to talk about local education issues. This week, however, Birbari seemed to have other matters on his mind.

A listener had emailed him a photo of the supportive-LGBTQ paintings, Birbari said. He then proceeded to question Snyder about what the radio host called a political statement. Birbari called homosexuality “destructive medically” and said most gay people he knew had come to “tragic ends.

Snyder, who’s district includes seven other schools, wasn’t aware of the paintings, he told Birbari. Regardless, the surprised superintendent countered Birbari, telling him his opinions on the LGBTQ population were dated and repeatedly expressing his support for any student — gay or straight, Christian or not — at his school.

Carey’s family remains unhappy with the high school’s handling of the bullying she faced. But Snyder’s pushback on Birbari, Carey said, gave her more hope.

“He stood up for us,” she said.

The radio interview became statewide news, with an article on WyoFile and in the Casper Star-Tribune a week later. Snyder has received an outpouring of gratitude and support, both from within and outside of Wyoming, he said.

“Until you have something like that happen you don’t really know what your community, the state or others — how they’re going to respond,” he said. “But the responses I’ve received have been very strong in opposition to the position the radio host took.”

A day after the news of Birbari’s interview went statewide, members of LGBTQ-advocacy group Wyoming Equality travelled to Riverton and held a meeting. In an auditorium at Central Wyoming College, supporters and members of Riverton’s LGBTQ community gathered to talk about a history of intolerance, the hope they saw in their community and the challenges they still face.

Some recalled a 2016 suicide in Gillette. An openly-gay young man killed himself following years of being harassed and bullied, his family said. The bullying his family and friends described in a Casper Star-Tribune article included vandalism to his car.

Birbari’s interview had opened old fears in a state and town where intolerance has dogged them before, the meeting attendees said.

“It’s the kind of language that makes people feel it’s OK to cause me grave harm,” said Debra East, a longtime resident of Lander who is openly gay.

Carey’s car was vandalized on a Saturday — Jimmy Mena’s day off from his job at Fremont Auto Reconditioning, a car detailing service. A transplant from Los Angeles, Mena has lived in Riverton off and on for 9-10 years, he told WyoFile. Tattoos cover his forearms, wrists and part of his neck.

He was driving down Main Street, from Central Wyoming College, and he saw a silver car. “She was making a left and I was coming right behind her and I noticed it said ‘lesbo’ on the side,” he said.

Mena tried to pull up and flag the driver but couldn’t, he said. He lost the car somewhere along the route. He went home instead, and posted a message to a community Facebook group with his phone number. He left out what the vandalism said, but told the victim to get in touch with him so he could clean up their car.

Word of the post reached Carey’s family the same Saturday. Her father contacted Mena and brought the car in. Removing something that big, “it takes some time,” Mena said. But he got it done and he did it for free.

Mena didn’t know the circumstances of the vandalism, or that the target was a high-school student until being interviewed for this story.

“To me … It’s bullying,” he said. “I don’t stand for that bullying shit.”

Mena had not heard about Birbari, or the interview that eventually got him suspended from the air and horrified Riverton’s LGBTQ community.

He didn’t clean the car for political reasons or to make a statement. “It’s people’s lives,” he said. “It’s what they do, it’s how they get along it’s how they live. If that’s their peaceful way of living then so be it.”

Carey and Mena haven’t met. She was too upset at the time, she said. “I felt really bad for not talking to him but I’m super grateful to him,” she said.

Over the course of the spring, Carey reapplied herself at school and her grades quickly came back up.

“It was always my biggest fear coming into high school that something traumatic would happen like this,” Carey said. “And then it did and it kind of made me a stronger person.”

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