Wyoming’s Sissy Goodwin remembers with museum exhibit | Wyoming news
By MARY STEURER, Casper Star-Tribune
CASPER, Wyo (AP) – Vickie Goodwin was supposed to meet her husband at the Smithsonian Museum, and he was very, very late.
The Wyoming natives were visiting DC for work, and while she was attending a meeting, Sissy had gone on a sightseeing tour. Now he was nowhere to be found. And what could she do? It was 1997 and they didn’t have cell phones.
She was beside herself. Back then, a man could get in a lot of trouble walking around DC in a skirt and blouse.
Sissy showed up after a couple of hours, Vickie remembered. He went to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where he met a Washington Post photographer, he told her. The mail was picked up by his clothes and wanted to write about him.
Days later, Dateline and Good Morning America called. They wanted to talk too.
“Do you even want to do that?” Vickie remembers asking him. He said he did.
“He’s always encouraged me to go beyond that,” she said Tuesday at her Douglas home. She laughed and rolled her eyes as she spoke as if to say, “This is Sissy.”
Larry “Sissy” Goodwin’s clothes caught the eye – a self-proclaimed crossdresser, he felt most in peasant sleeves, skirts and bows in his hair.
The Air Force veteran, former power plant technician and retired Casper educator, who disregarded traditional gender roles, had made him a celebrity in Wyoming. But it was his openness and advocacy that cemented him as part of the Cowboy State shared experience. Those who knew him said he touched life everywhere.
Sissy died of a brain tumor in March 2020. He was 73.
For the past year, Vickie has worked to preserve her husband’s memory. Sissy opened his life to others because he wanted to help people like him, she said. In this way she complies with this wish.
“I think we are immortal as long as we remember,” she said.
“The stuff of his life”
With Vickie’s help, the Nicolaysen Art Museum in Casper recently opened a biographical exhibition on Sissy entitled “The Fabric of His Life, Larry Sissy Goodwin,” reports the Casper Star-Tribune.
The exhibition uses a hodgepodge of artifacts from his life – photos, newspaper clippings, personal items – to tell his story. The focus is of course on his clothing.
Each object captures a moment in the snapshot: his time as a rodeo cowboy. His service as an aircraft mechanic during the Vietnam War. His marriage to Vickie. How he found the confidence to dress up in public in the 1970s while working at the Glenrock power plant and raising two children.
A little theater goes through Sissy and Vickie’s appearance on NPR’s storytelling project StoryCorps in 2015 and, yes, their interview with Dateline from the ’90s.
His craftsmanship is also shown. On the one hand, Sissy was a passionate aviation enthusiast, but she was also involved in winemaking, gardening and photography.
The exhibition aims not only to show who Sissy was, but also to encourage discussion and self-reflection, said Amanda Yonker, the museum’s art curator.
Questions printed on the walls encourage visitors to think about how they can learn from him. “Have you ever fought for something that was very close to your heart?” One reads.
The Nicolaysen’s director Andy Couch said he was inspired to open the exhibition after working with playwright Gregory Hinton, a native of Cody.
He met in 2018 when Hinton was working on his piece “More Sky” about Cherokee author Lynn Riggs. Couch was director of a history museum in Riggs’ hometown of Claremore, Oklahoma, so Hinton advised him on research.
At one point, Hinton brought up Sissy.
“I told him about this great Wyoming character – that wonderful person who turned Wyoming upside down,” said Hinton.
It wouldn’t be long before the paths crossed again. Fascinated by his story, Hinton wrote a play about sissy.
Hinton’s play would lead to yet another history project: last year he connected Hinton Vickie with Leslie Waggener, an archivist at the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming.
Waggener teamed up with Vickie to record an oral history for Out West in the Rockies, a collection dedicated to archiving LGBTQ narratives. They recorded over 22 hours together, Vickie said.
Oral history became the basis of Hinton’s piece “A Sissy in Wyoming”.
In the meantime, Couch has moved to Casper to take over Nic. The museum started exhibiting not long after.
As part of the exhibition, Hinton will visit the Nic on October 24th to read through his piece.
The exhibit follows a summer of anti-LGBTQ bigotry in Wyoming. A biker bar in Cheyenne caused outrage in July for selling T-shirts advocating violence against gays. That same month, a transgender woman who was supposed to be putting on a magic show at the Campbell County Library was canceled after receiving threats from Gillette residents. Less than a week later, another transgender woman in Casper was badly beaten.
‘That’s the way I am’
That Sissy generated so much buzz for encouraging a 22-hour oral story, play, and art exhibition was no accident, Hinton said.
“He really had an eye on being remembered,” he said.
As a born teacher, Sissy wanted people to understand that he wasn’t just the clothes he was wearing, Vickie said.
He looked for opportunities to talk to others about his life, struggles, and ideas – and he was very good at it, she added. People were intrigued by Sissy’s humble charm, sense of humor, and the clever way he talked about the world.
He spoke openly about what he had been through: the verbal abuse. The broken windows. The day someone assaulted him in his own garden and broke his teeth. His arrests in Casper and Salt Lake City.
He was also open about his struggle for self-acceptance.
His decision for “Sissy” was part of that journey. “Sissy” is an insult intended to humiliate anyone who opposes traditional male gender roles, especially gay and bi men and transgender women. Taking it as his name was his way of reclaiming and neutralizing the term, he told people.
In addition to appearing on talk shows and newspapers, he also worked with local stakeholders to promote LGBTQ rights. He served on the Wyoming ACLU board of directors, and both he and Vickie were members of Wyoming Equality.
He lectured on gender diversity at Eastern Wyoming College and Casper College, where he also taught technology courses for several years.
“He always started with the words, ‘Most of the women I know wear jeans and t-shirts. I wonder about some of you out here, ”Vickie said.
He can turn even derogatory remarks into instructive moments, she added.
In 2017, former Wyoming Republican Senator Mike Enzi sparked a public outcry after making offensive comments about crossdressing men during an event at Greybull High School.
When asked about LGBTQ rights in Wyoming, Enzi told the students that the state is generally tolerant as long as they “don’t force it in someone’s face.”
“I know a guy who wears a tutu and goes to the bars on Friday nights and is always surprised that he gets into an argument,” he said.
Many read his words as a weird reference to Sissy. Although Enzi denied this, he later personally apologized to Sissy on the phone.
“We had a nice chat,” Sissy told the Tribune. “He apologized and I have no doubt it was real.”
The exhibition of the Nic was received with great support by the parishioners.
At the opening reception on October 1st, visitors hung out and exchanged favorite memories of Sissy – as if they were part of the exhibition themselves.
Seeing so many people mobilize to keep Sissy’s keepsake alive was great, Hinton said. The word “Bashert” comes to mind, he said – Yiddish for “it should be”.
Hinton has devoted much of his career to portraying the life experiences of LGBTQ people in the rural west. He knows how often stories like Sissy’s one are overlooked, forgotten, and erased, he said.
The Goodwin household is its own memorial to Vickie and Sissy’s time together. The shelves proudly display photos of their smiling faces, souvenirs from bygone years, party decorations for their 50th wedding anniversary.
There are traces of Sissy’s manual work everywhere: He laid the kitchen tiles and the cupboards, dug up the koi pond at the back.
Vickie’s colorful treasures line the hearth and window sills – dragon figurines, gemstones, and an impressive collection of butterflies-themed items.
(She loves butterflies. On a coffee cup it says: “Love is like a butterfly, it leads you to magical places!”)
In the meantime she was busy, she said. She is president of the Converse County Library Board and an active member of the county’s Democratic Party. Her free time is filled with writing, handicrafts and spending time with her grandchildren.
At some point Vickie wants to stop by the exhibition at the Nic again. She was there on the opening night but looks forward to returning at her own pace, she said.
It will be a private moment to absorb it all and maybe shed a few tears.
Looking back at her 51 years at Sissy was cathartic and eye-opening at the same time, Vickie said.
“When I did all of this, it came back to me – how much he did,” she said.
Vickie is considering writing memoirs about Sissy and herself, she said. There are many more stories to share.
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