SHERIDAN — There are people with a gift for making others feel heard. They bring out the best in everyone, and around them people feel empowered.
Perhaps the skill is inborn. More likely, it’s honed from years of hard work and from knowing the value of being recognized.
University of Wyoming professor and state Rep. Dr. Cathy Connolly moved to Laramie in 1992 when she accepted a position at the University of Wyoming. She had just finished a law degree and her PhD in sociology at the University of New York at Buffalo. She was in her mid-30s and arrived in Wyoming with her then-partner and their 6-year-old son.
“I came here with the ink barely dry on my PhD. This was my first job as a professor,” Connolly remembered.
She was looking for a place that had a great reputation, that valued teaching as well as high-quality research and, from her perspective in 1991, did not have a reputation for being homophobic.
Connolly served as the director of women’s studies at the University of Wyoming from 2000-06, and again from 2013-16. She has adjunct appointments with American studies and disability studies, and helped to establish the queer studies minor, according to the university. Her research interests have led to published work in the areas of second-parent adoptions, gay rights and the wage gap.
She was elected to serve in the Wyoming House of Representatives representing House District 13 in Laramie in 2008. In her legislative capacity, she has earned certificates from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Western Legislative academy for state leaders.
But she wasn’t always accepted readily into what Wyomingites call the Equality State.
“When I came to UW, I found out that I was the first openly gay person here, and the same happened in the Legislature,” Connolly said. “That very much surprised me. We were in the 1990s, and that’s not that long ago.”
In that same time period, she hoped to sponsor a get-together for gay and lesbian university faculty.
“What could be more innocuous? And I got hate mail. I was told to leave,” Connolly said.
She was not allowed to teach a high school institute class, only to find out the reason later: There was an expectation that faculty would invite students to their homes, and the organizer didn’t want students to say that a gay faculty member had them over.
When she was up for tenure six years later, she was told via anonymous message that she would never received tenure. The reason: She was gay.
But she did not leave Wyoming.
“All this happened, so it is not like UW was an overwhelmingly accepting and wonderful place. But I needed to live here, and I wanted my life here. My life was here,” Connolly said. “That meant that there was work to be done here.”
But others did leave, she said, and that shouldn’t have happened. It shouldn’t happen again.
“Now, people don’t want to leave. They feel that attitude is wrong — they shouldn’t have to leave,” Connolly said. “Maybe that’s a difference between now and 1991. Folks are far more out, and our state is a better place.”
Erin O’Doherty, vice chair of the Wyoming Democratic Party, said she’s known and admired Connolly for years.
“I’ve been extremely grateful for her representation, because she’s absolutely brilliant and extremely knowledgeable,” O’Doherty, who lives in House District 13, said.
Her daughter Sierra Johnson, a University of Wyoming graduate, had Connolly as a professor when she took an intro to LGBT studies class. There were a lot of people who had no background in subject matter, she remembered.
“She was really good about making the information accessible to a lot of people,” Johnson said. “Cathy successfully made the material easy to understand, but also encouraged critical thinking. She helped people push their understanding, but in a very straightforward way.”
Johnson, who received her undergraduate degree at UW and went on to study and earn her masters in engineering from CU Boulder, said her career path does not mirror Connolly’s. Nonetheless, she has been an inspiration.
“I ended up in engineering, which is very different from her field, but she’s so well-reasoned in how she thinks about things,” Johnson said. “She also has to deal with a lot of things in the Legislature … people who are saying that who she is is not OK, and the fact that she is able to keep going and keep fighting for what is important—that’s inspiring.”
Connolly’s ability to stay calm in the face of difficulties, Johnson said, is incredible.
Dr. Susan Dewey, a UW associate professor in Gender and Women’s Studies, recalled meeting Connolly in 2009 as a job candidate at the University.
“I just thought, ‘Wow, what a terrific group of women,’ and Cathy in particular really stood out,” Dewey said. “She is a great scholar, but she’s also a tremendous leader in practice, and not just on campus.”
Simply put, Connolly is a good human being, Dewey said.
“How many people could you think of who not only are accomplished but also funny and full of light? And that you want to spend time with them?” Dewey said. “Wherever Cathy goes, people just gravitate to her. She is so dynamic and down-to-earth, you just want to sit with her and laugh and relax.
“She has such an essence of vitality. It’s really important for women of any age to look at someone like Cathy as a role model because she’s able to lead in a way that is hardly effortless, but she makes it appear so. She manages to make everyone feel heard, and she does it in such a way that the best of everyone present comes out.
“I’m sure she must have worked hard on that,” Dewey continued, “but she is so good at it it seems that it is something that happens organically, even though it’s a tremendous skill.”
Though Wyoming’s reputation has changed more than once — for the worse and, perhaps, for the better — in the years and decades since Connolly arrived, what hasn’t changed is the state’s beautiful outdoor spaces.
“I’ve always loved that,” Connolly said. “I’ve always been someone who has liked to hike, and when I came here I started cross-country skiing. Even though I moved from Buffalo, New York, winter lasts longer here. Those parts of Wyoming haven’t changed. That is for sure.”
Connolly is often surprised when others are shocked that she has always known gay and transgender people in Wyoming.
“It really surprises people to understand that, while we might not have been on their radar, (we) have always been in Wyoming,” Connolly said. “People are regrettably really surprised when they realize that there is so much work to be done because of the discrimination that still exists.”
Wyoming is not a bastion of acceptance. The challenges of living here as a female, as a member of the LGBTQ community or of any minority are real, she said.
“Live and let live” can mean that if “you look and act like me, great — but if I mention that I have a same-sex partner, that would be flaunting,” Connolly said.
“Congratulations to many of Wyoming’s schools, not all, but many, which are open and welcoming of diversity in all sorts of ways,” she said. “Kids come to expect that.”
Being the first, conscientiously educating others and leading by example can be exhausting.
“But I am not going to hide, and I am not going to ask my now-adult son to lie about his family,” Connolly said. “It is exhausting, but luckily there are many, many wonderful people in Wyoming who want this to be an open and welcoming place.”
“I am not alone, and never have been,” Connolly said.
Editor’s note: On Dec. 10, 1869, Wyoming territory passed the first law in United States history recognizing women’s right to vote and hold public office.
At The Sheridan Press, we are counting down to the 150th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the Equality State with a special series inspired by the Wyoming Office of Tourism’s “Year of Wyoming Women.” Highlighting a different inspiring Wyoming woman, the features are published on the 10th of every month. Explore the full series here!