Since he took office in 2005, openly gay Republican Dan Zwonitzer, 41, has successfully orchestrated efforts to defeat at least six anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in the Wyoming Legislature, many of which would have set limits on same-sex marriages, and he has been a powerful political voice in behalf of gay Wyomingites. He said blocking these and other bills he considers bad for the state are what he does best.
"I'm so proud that Wyoming, even though we're a very Republican state, that we have not passed anti-GLBT legislation," said Zwonitzer, one of a trio of LGBTQ lawmakers in the state and the only one who is a Republican.
In fact, Wyoming, considered one of the most conservative states, has not passed any anti-LGBTQ legislation since a statute against same-sex marriage in 1977, according to fellow Rep. Sara Burlingame, a Democrat, who is the executive director of Wyoming Equality, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group.
Zwonitzer, who is the second most senior representative in the state House, "is just well-respected," Burlingame said.
"He carries a lot of weight, and he has been very successful in fighting these bills," she said, adding that he's one of a number of LGBTQ lawmakers across the country who "just carve their own path and don't ignore their sexual orientation, but it's not at the center of their legislative work, either."
"That's a pretty radical thing for the most conservative state in the union, in the year of our Lord 2020. I mean, he really is pretty remarkable," Burlingame said.
Zwonitzer, whose district includes parts of Laramie County and the capital, Cheyenne, became the youngest person in state history to join the Legislature when he ousted incumbent Edward R. Prosser, a Republican, at age 24.
Today, he finds himself among a shrinking circle of moderates. Although traditional Republicans held on to 11 battleground districts in the August primaries, far-right candidates clinched seats in seven districts, replacing a number of incumbents, according to the Casper Star-Tribune.
Zwonitzer hasn't been afraid to break with conservative colleagues on a number of issues. As chairman of the Revenue Committee, he's pushing for moderate tax increases to help shrink an estimated $1 billion budget deficit, the largest in Wyoming's history. Although he is a gun owner, he has refused to sponsor or support certain pieces of pro-gun legislation, including one that would have repealed "gun-free zones" in the state. He supports expanding Medicaid in Wyoming, one of at least 12 states that haven't expanded the program under the Affordable Care Act. And he said that when he was chairman of the Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee, he helped defeat conservative efforts to enact laws that would restrict voting rights.
For his moderate stances, Zwonitzer has been labeled a RINO, or "Republican in name only," by many on the far right. His score with the National Rifle Association's Political Victory Fund, the NRA's political action committee, dropped from an A- to a C-, and the American Conservative Union Foundation, a grassroots organization that ranks Republicans based on their level of conservatism, gave him the lowest score on its 2019 Wyoming report.
"I'm fine being called a RINO. It's almost a badge of honor right now," Zwonitzer said. "I do what I think is right."
Far-right attacks haven't hurt him with voters. In the August primaries, he beat his Republican challenger, John Harvey, by almost 15 percentage points.
"The Republicans in my district keep voting for me against more far-right challengers," he said. "I like to think that's because they know me, they trust me and they kind of have the same mindset I do."
Zwonitzer came out quietly in 2016, without drawing headlines, when he started taking Justin Browning, who is now his husband, to political events. His father, David Zwonitzer, also a Republican, served alongside him in the House until he retired in 2017. At the time, Zwonitzer feared that coming out would create problems for his dad.
"I was afraid to come out for a long time — what it would do to my family, what it might mean," he said. "When I did, I've had no serious ramifications whatsoever. No fights, no arguments, no political campaigns against me, no letters to the editor, nothing."
Zwonitzer, who teaches political science at a community college, married Browning, 30, a government employee, in 2018. They adopted two sons, Nick, 12, and Ezekiel, 16. The family lives in Cheyenne, where Zwonitzer grew up, helping his parents run their family businesses, a furniture store and auction company. He said he has never faced backlash for his sexuality in Wyoming, a mountainous state of less than 600,000 where "everybody knows everybody."
"You know, one of my kids was uncomfortable having two gay dads for the first six months he was with us, and now he's like, 'Oh, my friends think it's so cool. My friends want to meet you,'" he said.
In the state notorious for the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was brutally beaten by two men and left for dead near Laramie, attitudes have shifted toward acceptance, Zwonitzer said.
Still, Wyoming has yet to pass any statewide legislation protecting LGBTQ residents, although the city of Laramie, where Shepard was a student at the University of Wyoming, passed an anti-discrimination ordinance in 2015 that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and access to public accommodations.
In recent years, Republican lawmakers introduced several anti-transgender bills, including at least one so-called bathroom bill that would have penalized trans people for using public accommodations matching their gender identities, but they were "dead on arrival," Zwonitzer said.
Zwonitzer has tried to pass legislation that would protect Wyoming's LGBTQ communities, but he has come up against a wall of opposition from conservative colleagues. Last year, a bill he sponsored that would have protected LGBTQ Wyomingites against workplace discrimination floundered in the House.
"We've never taken very many steps forward, but we never took a step back," Zwonitzer said of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights in Wyoming.
Since Shepard's murder, lawmakers in Wyoming tried but failed to pass a hate crimes bill in 1999, Zwonitzer said. In 2009, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a federal law that expanded the power of the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
But Zwonitzer said he would still like Wyoming to pass a hate crimes bill, noting that it is one of just three states, along with Arkansas and South Carolina, that hasn't done so. The sting of Shepard's death "is still there," said Zwonitzer, who was studying at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., the year Shepard died and was about the same age.
There are 863 LGBTQ elected officials in the U.S., at least 24 of whom are Republicans, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a group that trains, supports and advocates for queer candidates. Zwonitzer is the only gay Republican lawmaker endorsed by the Victory Fund who is still in the 2020 race.
He said he has faced criticism from colleagues on both the left and the right, two factions he says are getting more "ideologically extreme." On one hand, he's gotten backlash from conservatives for not being conservative enough, he said. On the other, he's faced criticism from liberals over his allegiance to the Republican Party, which has pushed dozens of anti-LGBTQ bills across the country.
But Zwonitzer — who said he sees political ideology as a matter of "fighting for what you believe in" rather than rank-and-file party affiliation — argued that there is "a place in the Republican Party for the GLBT community."
"Being gay is who I am. The Republican Party is, you know, a choice right now, and I'll be the first to admit it's getting a little tougher to be a Republican," Zwonitzer said. "I don't think my politics have changed in 15 years, but certainly my party has moved further to the right."
Although he doesn't endorse or plan to vote for President Donald Trump, he said he remains ideologically aligned with the Republican Party's embrace of small government.
He said that before he retires from politics, he hopes to help pass a hate crimes bill in Wyoming, which he expects to make its way to the Legislature next year in the wake of a United States Commission on Civil Rights-backed investigation into bias crimes in the state.
"I would be ecstatic if during my 16th year — if I last that long — to be able to say we actually did move Wyoming forward," Zwonitzer said.