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RIVERTON, WYOMING — 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 none 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.
Allies and new antagonists
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 fin