As a political writer based in Laramie, Wyoming I am often jealous of my peers in snazzy places like New York City and Boston. When news breaks out, they are there, on the front lines. They don’t have to rely on second-hand reports, because they are there. That never happens in Laramie. I mean, what am I going to report? That the deer are fawning, the tumbleweeds are big, and the wind is overwhelming? Nothing new to report in that.
Well, last week, real news hit Laramie. Really confusing news. It started with a seemingly random Facebook post and it ended with a huge plot twist at the end that caused even me to question my own gut instincts and has resulted in quite the uproar in our little town.
For me, everything began pretty innocuously, when I was able to meet a longtime Facebook friend and colleague, Meg Lanker Simons, in person for the first time on Monday, April 22nd. I had a great time getting to know Meg better and meeting her husband, Andrew Simons. I found them to be interesting, funny, kind, and thoughtful. I was excited to learn that she was my neighbor, and hopeful for a future friendship with both of them.
On Wednesday of that week I was appalled to see a disgusting post about her anonymously submitted to a Facebook page called UW Crushes which is a lot like a slew of other popular anonymous crush sites popping up on social media in relation to different college campuses (and even high schools) around America. UW Crushes has had a reputation for sharing lewd and harassing comments under the guise of anonymity. For months, students have complained to university administration about the page, specifically in regards to comments that named individual students on campus, but the university claimed that it had not taken action because it was trying to respect the bounds of free speech.
I watched the drama unfold in real time as students first viewed, commented and liked the post about Meg. Her husband, and mother were particularly vocal about it’s disgusting nature and made several pleas within that thread asking that it be taken down, requesting an apology to Meg, asking the page moderators to take responsibility for sharing it, and asking the anonymous poster to come forward and eat his words.
At first, the only response from UW Crushes was when they hid the post from their timeline after it had been up for about four hours. But a post that is hidden from their own timeline display is still delivered to the news feeds of a page’s fans until it is actually deleted, which didn’t occur for four more hours.
By the time the post was pulled from the page and the first of at least two clumsy apologies was posted on UW Crushes, the community was in outrage. Neither apology really took responsibility for the post, but rather, both seemed to mock people whose “feelings were hurt” and suggest that the whole thing was nothing but a funny joke.
I couldn’t help but notice that nobody was laughing.
Wyoming, is a small place, with a statewide population of 600,000 people, which is less than the greater metro area of Denver. It didn’t take long for Meg’s 55,000 tumbler fans, the outraged parents of UW Students, and a significant portion of the campus population to flood the campus faculty with emails and phone calls demanding action.
On Thursday morning the UW administration reacted quickly. They apparently asked the UW Crushes page to stop using the image of the school seal and mascot because the page changed those by mid morning. The Dean of Students wrote a letter requesting that the situation be investigated. Women and Gender Studies Students started a Facebook event page to plan a rally for Monday April 29th to speak out against rape culture on campus. Shortly after all of that, the UW Crushes page was completely taken down from Facebook.
Unfortunately, this did not close the online forums for discussion about this subject which could be found on Facebook, both conservative and liberal blogs, and even the local paper’s opinion editorials and comment sections. The backlash against Meg and the people who were outraged by the comment shared on the UW Crushes page was immense. People in our rural community took no issue with publicly sharing Meg’s address, her car make, model, and color and personal information both true and manufactured.
My first reaction, in reading the original comment, which named my friend and neighbor, was defensiveness. I was angry. I wanted to find the person that wrote it, and turn them in to school authorities to face the ramifications of the school honor code. I wanted to seek out Meg, and hug her. I wanted to reach out to every woman in Laramie, in Wyoming even, and tell them that none of us deserve to be treated like this. But, I was confused, as I am now, about what hat I was supposed to wear.
Was it the hat of friendship? Was it the hat of professional bloggess? Or was it the hat of State Director of Wyoming’s chapter of UniteWomen.org?
I still am not sure exactly how to be loyal to my duties of all three of my most important capacities outside mom and wife, but at that time I made the decision to somehow try to act in the best way possible for all my responsibilities.
On Friday, I spoke about these issues on Meg’s radio show, Cognitive Dissonance, along with other guests including state Representative James Byrd. It was clear, from Meg’s behavior, that she had been shaken from who I knew her to be from our first, more candid meeting. She was very vocal about the rape threats online. She was defensive of herself, she was outraged and she was convincing in her passion.
I thought that we both did a good job with trying to present an argument against allowing our community to house anonymous people who terrorize women to silence. I was proud to represent rape survivors, bullying survivors, and harassed women with my voice that night. Representative Byrd praised us both for our honesty and willingness to devote ourselves to our cause.
By Sunday night, as I prepared myself to give a ten minute speech at the rally on UW’s campus that was to take place almost exactly one week after I had met Meg for the first time, my biggest concern was my family. I was afraid that once I stepped out into the public, where Meg had been when she became a target, then my kids might pay the consequence for it.
I went to Monday’s rally with that fear close at hand, and I shook for the whole ten minutes that I spoke, regardless of the applause that occasionally interrupted me. I spoke about how important it is that we step past the initial post directed at Meg. I talked about how Wyoming women deserve a community where it is safe to speak out, and even be disliked, without fear of being slut shamed to silence by hateful men who threaten women with their own chastity.
I pointed out that it was obvious from the crowd that had gathered that the post had inspired a righteous conversation of high importance and even the police in the shade of the plaza’s trees clapped. I reminded the crowd that I could not dismiss the threat as just words because I was a writer and I refused to allow hateful words like these to invalidate the power in every positive thing I’d ever written. I closed, with a momma bear roar in my small voice as I said that unlike whoever started this whole thing, I signed my name to every word I had just said.
I was proud of myself on Monday. I was proud because I knew that I had worn three hats at once during that speech. I was loyal to my friend, I believed her when she asked for help in the face of a threat of rape. I was loyal to my skills as a writer in honoring the power of words. I was loyal to my job and the women I represent in my message. I did the very best that I could and I put so much effort into it that I went home, and straight to bed with a migraine.
Late Monday evening I started to get whispers of rumor that said Meg had been cited for lying to the police in relation to the comment submitted to UW Crushes. By Tuesday morning, reports were being published that proffered that Meg had been cited for making the comment itself, after a supposed thorough review of her computer, and her own alleged admission.
Pretty quickly, things disintegrated along party lines. The conservatives, who quite honestly seem to hate Meg, participated in a horrific crucifiction of her character that started with calling her a slut and terrorist and ended with blatant and irrefutable death and rape threats.
The liberal community… Or more accurately, the decent part of our community in general, was outraged at the original threat, the defense of the threat, and the escalation and perpetuation of new threats in public forums. They were obviously as disturbed as I was as they pondered the possibility of Meg’s role in all of it. By Tuesday morning, Laramie hummed with gossip about Meg, her husband, her politics, her friends, and of course, her foes.
I watched this whole thing happen with amazement. It was like watching a fire grow, and grow, and then rage out of control and I must admit, it has taken me quite a bit of time to process it enough to report on it to my readers.
I cannot tell you how I felt except that I was hurt and confused. What I read about Meg was not what I knew. I could not reconcile the idea that Meg could actually be guilty of this in my heart or mind. Upon reading of her citation I got dressed and went to Meg’s house, where I woke Meg’s husband and showed him the news. It was clear that he knew Meg had been charged, but struggled with the same inability to believe she would have done this to herself. I talked with him a bit, then took my leave and went home to field calls from local papers, women’s groups, and University officials. I had no choice but to do my job as a women’s advocate, by sticking to my decision to advocate for a woman named Meg. I did this because I remembered, that I was still wearing three hats.
As a friend, I had to support her because I believed her and support is what friends give when it is needed.
As a writer, and liberal blogger, I knew that the uneven party lines of our state would persecute the righteous minority over the damned majority every time and I started preparing myself mentally to write this very article.
As a women’s advocate, who knows full good and well that women across our nation face retaliation from their employers, families, schools and communities for reporting rape and other sexual harassment threats, I knew that I had to stand between my friend, the victim, and those who would bully, harass and intimidate her.
While wearing three hats, I did my best to keep my loyalties while I told reporters, my boss at UniteWomen.org and the investigators at the University of Wyoming that I, and perhaps I alone, stood with Meg.
Surprisingly, I received respect for my position and was quoted heavily in the papers that came out locally yesterday. My mother, my father, my extended family and my husband, wrung their hands with worry as they watched the comments section of all three Wyoming papers began to turn from the persecution of Meg and her husband Andrew to those who supported them. They asked me to take a step back, and to stop being vocal in my support of Meg. But I couldn’t. I could not let go of my compassion for my cowardice.
One quote in the paper said that I had personally put my character on the line for Meg and my family took particular issue with my choice to do that for a person I’d only known closely for a week. I admit, that there have been moments since I learned of her citation that would have caused even the most devout friend to question Meg and I sure as heck questioned her. I questioned myself too but my gut instinct said, and still says, that Meg and Andrew are the victims. I do not believe that Meg did this to herself, to her mom, to her friends, or to her husband, but I admit that I have asked myself if I am foolish for that and I don’t know if I will ever know for sure.
I do have the benefit of information that I cannot present here because it is her attorney’s job to present it in court first. I have taken screen shots of almost every interesting milestone in this story, screenshots that I suspect few others even know exist. I have interviewed at least one UW official, who said that the press release most local and national news articles have been based on, is incorrect. I have seen an individual in our community brag that they were the one who framed Meg. I have spent time hanging out at Meg’s house with her, her husband and her friends. I have received private messages and emails with information about the websites used, how technological threats like this are investigated, what actual technologic evidence exists, and how it relates to Meg personally.
I have also seen the response of our community from a point of view that is very uncomfortable. As the person listed as the defender on record of Meg LankerSimons, I have seen the ugly side of Wyoming and I am pretty disgusted with it. The threats, bullying and intimidation that Meg has had to face, before and after the news of her citation, has been terrible. It hurts to think about how it might affect people I love when those behaviors are directed at me. I shudder to think of how it will feel to have my character impugned by the conservatives of my state and nation. I can only hope that they see me for who I am, a woman who tries to tell it like it is.
Against the advice of those who worry for my personal safety, including myself, I offer my point of view on this story. I offer it today with the high hope of never having to eat a plate of hot crow, as I would if it were to become obvious that Meg actually did this. I offer my opinion because the evidence I have seen, which cannot be presented in a court of public opinion until it has been seen in a court of law, suggests her innocence. The time I have spent with Meg and the people who love her, supports my belief in her inevitable vindication. The gut instinct that my mamma taught me to follow, says that Meg is innocent.
And so, I close, with the same efforts with which I began. I pay tribute first to the hat of friendship as I recall a line from my speech a few days back and say that, “I am proud to call Meg Lanker Simons my neighbor. Meg isn’t just a vocal Wyoming Liberal. She isn’t just a well known, confident and educated woman. She is a veteran. She is a married woman with a dedicated and loving husband. She is a survivor of rape. She is someone who has put herself on the line publicly for a number of years to fight worthy causes and defend the constitutional rights of others even in the face of harsh blowback from locals and significant personal sacrifice.” She is my friend and I stand by her.
I pay homage to my job as a bloggess in offering my best efforts at describing what I have seen, what I know, and how I feel right here and now. I give my perspective to the Internet humbly and with full knowledge that somehow, someway, it will be dissected by people on the outside looking in.
I give my efforts to the hat I wear as a woman who represents all women as I remind everyone that what mattered when we rallied on Monday still matters . It matters that the hateful comment was published. It matters that nine people clicked like on it. Scores have come out in defense of it. Hundreds have even viciously attacked Meg and those who love and stand by her through anonymous hate mail and relentless Facebook pursuit. It matters.
That is what I spoke up against when I reported the comment the first time I saw it. That is what I fought when I cried on the radio last Friday. That is what motivated me as my hands and my voice shook while I rallied on Monday. That is what I stand for, right here and now today. That is what I will defend, tomorrow and the day after.
It isn’t ok to bully Wyoming women. It isn’t ok to harass them online. It isn’t ok to threaten them. It isn’t ok to shame them with their own sense of self. It isn’t ok that my community heard the cry of a victim and the first thing we did was feed the dog that bit her.
That is not and never will be the Wyoming way.
As a fourth generation Wyomingite and a determined voice for Wyoming Women, I proudly stand by Meg. I stand between her and anyone who would disparage a woman who is bold and independent and vocal. This is not how we treat people. Not even women like Meg that some find distasteful, no matter her opinions or her reputation.
It isn’t ok to ask if the victim deserved it. It isn’t ok to assume she’s crying wolf. It isn’t ok to leave her without an advocate and so… In the face of what I know right here and right now, I humbly urge the local and national press to look at the whole picture and wait for the justice system to do its job before they hang my friend Meg out to dry.
To see more of what Meg’s real friends have to say, click here