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Utah Republican gubernatorial candidates talk LGBTQ with Equality Utah

Before primary ballots were mailed to voters, Equality Utah held a candidate forum, interviewing the four Republican GOP candidates on LGBTQ issues. The 80-minute video is at the end of this story.

To help you make your voting choice, QSaltLake Magazine has chosen moments during the forum.

Spencer Cox

Williams: So everybody is on a journey; very few people are static in their beliefs and their views, so I’m curious about your personal journey, thinking about LGBT issues. Talk about your evolution.

Cox: So, I shared some of this publicly. This piece maybe not as much. A real important inflection point for me came when I was running for office eight years ago to get into the [Utah] House of Representatives. A friend of mine, a reporter — remember I come from a small rural place — came up to me and we had a very important conversation. He said, since you’re going to get elected, you need to know something. He came out to me that night and said, “I want you to think very carefully about me when you are making those decisions.” It was kind of a stunning moment for two reasons — one I didn’t know he was gay, and two, I hadn’t thought much about it from a policy standpoint. While the starting point [of his growth on LGBT issues] was much earlier, that was a leaping point.

Through this process of public service, I have had the opportunity to meet some just amazing people in the state who shared their stories with me. I think that is what makes it real, is part of that journey.

I’ve said before, on civil rights issues, you know people don’t wake up one morning and become a different race or have a child of a different race. That takes time. People do wake up all the time and find out that someone they care deeply about, a family member or a friend or someone, is part of the LGBTQ community, and that starts to change their perspective. So it really is about relationships, for me and for most people.

Williams: I’m also very proud of Gov. Herbert as I look at the evolution of things. So six years ago, we were in this big legal battle, and it was Kitchen v. Herbert. And now Derek Kitchen is a state senator. Since then Gov. Herbert has signed our nondiscrimination law in 2015, he signed a bill to overturn our anti-gay curriculum law in 2017. Last year he signed an LGBTQ-inclusive hate crime law, and this year he helped us in conversion therapy for minors. That’s an incredible arc.

Cox: It is, and just a couple months ago he and I were taking a walk to get away from the session, and Derek Kitchen was walking around, and we took a picture of them together — Kitchen v. Herbert right there. And I’m grateful for that arc, and I believe I had something to do with that as we worked so closely together and came to a better understanding, and if he were sitting here today, I think he would tell you the same thing. We are in a much better and much more inclusive place, and I think that’s good for the state of Utah and good for us, personally.

Williams asked about what Cox will do if elected governor to help with the suicide crisis, saying Utah’s suicide rate has risen 141 percent in 10 years.

Cox: The legislature has passed more mental health legislation over the past couple of years than probably the rest of the history of the state combined. We’re putting real dollars toward suicide prevention. The Safe Utah app has been a really important piece of that. The mobile crisis outreach teams that we’re working on, and then just changing the culture around these issues is going to do more than anything else. When people feel included and when people have a connection. I’ve often said the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection. The same thing is true with mental health issues. Our LGBTQ communities, when they feel welcome when they feel like they have a place … that’s going to save more lives than really anything else we can do.

Williams: The Pulse massacre was devastating for our community, and to have an elected official [Spencer Cox] stand up and show empathy and compassion was huge. I had a friend in India who saw your speech on the news in India. So it had an impact across the globe, you know, that a Republican would step forward and show love and compassion toward the LGBT community then that’s beautiful.

Cox: Well, there are two sides to that. One is how crazy it is that a no-name politician from Utah, the lieutenant governor, would get that kind of attention from all around the world. We received messages from all over the world; from Chile, Great Britain, Russia, everywhere. These messages that were coming in were very positive and yet I think it gave license to people because what I heard over and over again was, “thank you for saying what I feel. I’ve just never figured out how to articulate them,” and those are the moments that matter.

I’ll tell you the best part of that was after this speech, for like an hour and a half, people just came on and shared their stories. And, they were heartbreaking, there were a lot of tears about people who had been rejected by their families or others, but most importantly, it was a moment of healing, and we need more of those moments.

Williams asked about hearing transgender voices in a Cox administration.

Cox: My job as governor, the kind of person I am, is bringing everybody together and listening to their voices. I have had that opportunity with many in the transgender community to come and talk to us multiple times, and it’s really fascinating and heartbreaking at times to have those conversations and understand what they’ve gone through. And so yes, they’re part of our state. They’re an important part of our state, and they deserve to be brought to the table.

Williams asked if the Republican party will eventually expand its tent to include LGBTQ people.

Cox: Absolutely. It’s not only in the future but in the past. We do have members of the LGBTQ community who are Republicans. We haven’t done a great job of being inclusive and broadening the tent, but some of us are trying really hard, and there’s a reason for that. The Republican party is part of civil rights. I mean, it’s the party of Lincoln. That’s where it starts. It’s the party of women’s suffrage. We’ve forgotten that. The party of Lincoln stands for lifting the individual, giving an opportunity to everyone. I’m protecting those who are most vulnerable, giving a voice to those who don’t have a voice, and making sure that they can enjoy the American Dream. I would like nothing more than for the Republican party to be the place where the LGBTQ community feels comfortable, where they feel like they can have success, and where they feel like they can be represented.

Jon M. Huntsman, Jr.

Williams introduced former governor John M. Huntsman, remembering that he and his wife went to the Equality Utah Allies Dinner and how he was impressed that the then-sitting governor of the state of Utah can be present and show that he was the governor for everyone.

Williams: How did you get to the to a place where your heart opened to our community?

Huntsman: An overriding philosophy for me, as a human being and as an elected official, has always been equality under the law. So as a Republican, I thought that’s what Abraham Lincoln always stood for — equality under the law. Not for some but for all.

I grew up in North Hollywood, California, when my dad worked for his uncles in the egg business. You couldn’t help, even as a young kid, noticing the tectonic shifts that were happening socially within the LGBTQ  community and the discussions that were ensuing. It was a fertile time, politically, and I carry those impressions with me through life. And then you find yourself in a neighborhood in Salt Lake, and you have a gay neighbor — a friend — who comes to you one day and says my partner died and I was not able to visit him in the hospital, and I was like, what is going on here? I had another friend, who was a name widely recognized, whose son passed tragically and he asked me to speak at the funeral, which I did. I had just been elected governor at the time, and I made mention publicly of him and his partner who were there in attendance, and the tears streamed because he had never heard those words. Particularly from a governor, and I thought it was just the right thing to do. You know, it is equality under the law.

I have a niece who’s gay. I have a running mate, Michelle Kaufusi, whose daughter is gay. She actually married them in Provo. They are part of a family and a part of our community. With each step along the way, I would look at the deficiencies in terms of how we treat some communities as compared to others, and it really grated at me as an American who believes in freedom and liberty for all and equality under the law. So that’s what informed me most of all in my journey, and I had the good fortune of having friends when I was elected governor. One friend and I’ll name him — Gordon Storrs.

He became a great friend during the campaign. As we were campaigning, he and his partner came in and said, “We really want to support you,” and I said I’d love to have you. “He then said, you know we’re gay.” and I said, “Come on in, we’re open to everybody.” He would come into my office as the newly elected governor, and take the time to sit, just one-on-one, and say, “I want you to understand some issues through my eyes. And I want you to understand my journey. It was the first time that I really sat down, in a political context, and had that conversation with somebody like Gordon, and I’m forever grateful to him and the education he brought me. I just listened and learned, and I tried to put myself in his shoes. It was transformational, and it showed the power of information, knowledge, education, sharing stories, and experiences. I think that’s been an important part of the journey for all of us.

Williams asked Huntsman why, back in 2009, he supported Equality Utah’s Common Ground Initiative that provided protections for LGBTQ families, as well as civil unions.

“This was six years before it actually passed in as law here in the state. That’s a political risk for you. Why did you do it?”

Huntsman: Because I felt it was the right thing to do and I had enough conversations and enough interaction with friends In the LGBTQ community to help me understand their journeys, their needs, and a heightened need for equality in our state. It bothered me, until we got to full equality, particularly on marriage. We were deficient and, although I couldn’t come right out and say marriage equality, I wanted to support a very important incremental step that would get people talking about it. And I thought, when a governor announces something, it opens the floodgates.

Some people say it’s never a positive thing to lead out on issues — everybody follows — because there’s a lot of pain that you have to endure. And I look back on the commentary and the hate mail I received. I remember what people in my own office, now in power, said about it. And I kept a couple of letters in my drawer that were the most hate-filled letters I’ve ever received. I tried to again put myself in the shoes of those in the [LGBTQ] community who have to endure this kind of thing and did, particularly in the early days and some still do, and I would pull the letters out every now and again, from respectable people, and I would reread them just to be reminded of what hate can be. And it reinforced me. It gave me greater resolve to carry on and do the right thing. So I was alone. I didn’t have a lot of allies at the time, but I know in my heart it was the right thing to do

Williams asked Huntsman if it surprised him to know that a poll showed Utah as being the second-highest state in the country to agree with LGBTQ protection laws.

Huntsman: It does not, because of the goodness of the hearts and souls of people in the state. Once people understand, once there is a thorough discussion, people have big hearts.

Williams asked if Huntsman will meet with the transgender community, to get to know them, their lives, and their struggles.

Huntsman: Of course I will. I will do exactly for the “T” community what I have done for all other communities. It’s a listening ear, and it’s an ultimate goal and philosophy of equality under the law.

Greg Hughes

Williams asked, “Back in 2015 when we came to you and said, ‘hey, we want some help passing a nondiscrimination law, and the LGBTQ community steps up, and you welcomed us into the house.

Hughes: Absolutely. And this is the issue — it was a very broad approach. I’ve tried to at least not put people into categories, and if we were trying to get some good public policy accomplished, that could be broadly approached, and treat each other like a two-way street, just like the Golden Rule, I was excited to do it. It was good to see that it was other people that had not typically wanted to come together to find common ground was doing it. So I jumped all over it. I was happy to do it. And that was a big moment.

I’m actually surprised since we all came together that way, why we haven’t seen that as a stronger national template nationally, or even talk about it much in our state now. I wish we would because I thought there was a lot of unity that was felt.

Williams: Before that, when issues that really impacted the LGBTQ community were being debated, we were never really at the table. But that changed after 2015 and it’s been good since then as we work through other difficult issues like hate crimes. For example, we’ve been at the table and what we would hope to see in the Hughes Administration moving forward is the same relationship when issues impact our community, we’re at the table working through them together.

Hughes: And you would, because we’ve taken some very disparate groups, and it’s easy to be keyboard warriors in 2020, it’s easy to throw out insults or to kind of stay in your circle of people and maybe be disparaging. But when you get people in a room together and you get to start looking at what others, you know people start to be more respectful and then that’s where you start to find common ground. And as long as there’s that idea that we’re going to find common ground, those people are not going to be the enemy of good. It hasn’t failed us.

Williams: What kind of policies and messages would you like to send out to young people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts?

Hughes: This is a tough one. I think that what you have in public policymakers is that we are seeing numbers that are so startling about suicide in general, but also teen suicide. So we did some things in the legislature with the Safe UT app, and now we have principals of high schools reaching out to students, even on the weekend, if that app lets them know that there’s a student or child struggling. So we’re trying very hard to address this issue. Going into my administration,  we’d take it very seriously. We would take it as seriously as we did when I was the speaker of the house. I’m struggling, as an old school guy. I’m having a hard time understanding what’s happening. So I think years ago I would have said just “you got to toughen up. If you’re going through this, it’s because you don’t have enough to worry about.” I had these ideas in my head that it was maybe society, that it’s too soft or too affluent. I know that’s wrong. But what if it’s technology; if it’s these social issues that kids are grappling with? I don’t know the answers, but what I do know is I don’t want to see it happen, and it’s happening at such a high rate. It scares me as a dad. I’m a dad, you know, I have three kids. It’s just, to your point, getting to the data and understanding.

Wiliams: So say that there’s an LGBTQ kid who feels like a misfit. “I don’t fit in.” What message as governor do you want to send to that kid?

Hughes: Well, I tell them what I tell my friends that are gay. I say, man, you are my friend. That is the bottom line. We are about relationships and how we hold our relationships as people. That’s the most important thing of all. Everything else is ancillary to that. If someone is going through issues in their life, it can’t get so scary or so dark that they think it would interrupt those family relationships or relationships with friends. If we are truly a family and if we truly are friends, that love has to be felt, and you’ve got to be that type of person as a family member or friend.

I think in 2020, we’re starting to understand those things. We have to give each other space to have our faith, our religious beliefs. I believe if we all give each other that, and that’s a two-way street, I think we’re going to be okay.

Williams: Did you know that the US military is the single largest employer of transgender Americans in the country? Since 2017 they’ve been banned from serving in the military. So, as governor, would you go with me to the VA hospital and meet with transgender veterans and hear their stories and let them talk to you about their service?

Hughes: A hundred percent. So this goes back to the last question. The key is, they’re veterans. They served their country. They served to protect the freedoms that we have in this country. I would never put different distinctions that would make one veteran different from another veteran. I want to reach out to all veterans. I want to be, and I think I have it, a public servant working to help veterans.

And Troy, I can tell you, it doesn’t matter — gender — it doesn’t matter. If you’re a veteran, I’m your advocate. I’m your friend, and that’s the beginning and end of it.

Williams: How do we ratchet down the polarization in our country? And how do we let every “misfit” know that they have a place in the American dream?

Hughes: So there are two things going on there. There’s the human nature that you’re more comfortable with what you know than with what you don’t. And I would say that’s not unique to any demographic of people that are different. I think that’s just people and human nature, and we have to be sensitive to that and overcome it. But the other one is, look, we have bullies out there. I think that there are people that look for those differences and if they feel or sense weakness … Bullies never pick on people that are ready to fight for themselves … so I think that’s what we have to deal with. I think you have to push back on bullies.

That’s who I am. I think that you’ve got to realize that we’re not as different as people think, and then we’ve got to watch out for bullies.

On a lighter note, Williams jokingly asked Hughes his favorite gay man crush between former Sen. Jim Dabakis or Tiger King’s Joe Exotic.

Hughes: “Argh! So here’s the deal: the premise of gay crush, so I’m still a little homophobic, I’m just a little old school here so, who do I admire the most? Man, I just watched that Tiger King, and I could not be more amused. I just thought that was the funniest show. I want to know if you like Joe Exotic because he was just like gun-totin’ … it was just so fun to watch him, but I gotta go with Jim Dabakis, Jim has been my pal. We’ve had so much fun working on issues together. We fight when it’s time to fight, but it’s never personal. I think we’ve done some important things together. So, he’s my guy.

Thomas Wright

Williams: You were the Salt Lake County Republican chair during 2009-2011. That was a  tumultuous political time for our community with your community. We were at political odds, there were debates and protests, but what I remember about you at the time is that you were willing to kind of come forward to meet our community and actively engaged us. Why?

Wright: Because I believe in equality. I believe that we’re all created equal, and we all have the right to pursue happiness the way that we see fit, and you know what? My greatest memories of being the Utah Republican party chairman was leaving the debate between Mia Love and Jim Matheson at KSL News radio, and I walked from there to the Salt Palace Convention Center and attended the Allies dinner. And remember when I walked in, everyone was kind of talking and whispering and there I was and it just never occurred to me that that that was a big deal.

I say this all the time: one of my best friends from all of my political services is Jim Dabakis. He was the Democratic chairman when I was a Republican chairman. We traveled the state together, made appearances together. Stephen [Justesen, Dabakis’ husband] and Caroline [Fuller, Wright’s wife] have become friends, and we’ve spent time together. And, you know, it’s very unlikely, but we’ve never had a cross word. We don’t agree on all the issues. We don’t agree on all the policies, but we’ve never had a cross word, we’ve never had that awkward moment because we just know what we each believe, but we’re very respectful of each other, and that’s what we need more of.

Williams: How do we do that? How do we expand the Republican tent so that LGBTQ people feel comfortable being there? It’s been so divisive, but that spirit, that relationship that you developed with Sen. Dabakis … how can we not seem to get that kind of spirit in the country right now?

Wright: Just love. Listening and love.

Williams: That’s a radical idea.

Wright: A little, maybe, but you know for me it’s about us loving people more than we love our political opinions. Let’s start with people. Let’s try to meet people on their ground and say, “you know what? I want to understand you better. Will you understand me better? Let’s listen to each other; let’s love each other. Look, Troy, life is short. During this pandemic, haven’t we learned what should be our priorities? It’s given us an opportunity to reset and to really think about what’s important in our lives and those relationships that are really important. You’re not going to take your political ideologies with you, but kindness and love last forever.

Especially now, like look at the mental health challenges our state faces. The suicide rate, we’re number one in the suicide rate for teenagers. We need to stop and just talk to people, just hear them.

Williams: Well, let’s talk about that because that’s actually my next question. We do know that since 2011 suicide rates for young people have spiked 141 percent. We don’t have data on how many of those identify as LGBTQ, but we do know from national data that our community is disproportionately more likely to attempt suicide. So what kind of policies will the Wright administration implement?

Wright: We have to declare war on mental health in the state of Utah. I’m not comfortable with Utah being number one for teenage suicide. I’m not comfortable with having too few mental healthcare professionals. We have a real opportunity with 150,000 Utahns having filed for unemployment to retrain them. I know a lot of them would love to be mental healthcare experts. We need them in rural Utah, we need them in urban Utah, and we need to make sure that people can get help. There’s nothing wrong with having a mental illness. Nobody chooses it. You know, nobody chooses physical ailments. Nobody chooses mental ailments. We just need to get help, and we need to be treated, and we need those professionals ready to go. That’s number one. Number two, we need to let our young people know nothing’s wrong with them. We love them just the way they are. Just come to us as you are. We will accept you. As governor, I want to talk about mental health and LGBTQ issues, just to destigmatize them. Talk about them more, and I think the more conservatives talk about those issues that we find common ground and we can meet each other in a safe place, and we can tell our youth there’s nothing wrong with them.

Williams: Right. So if there’s an LGBTQ youth who’s struggling and looks to you as governor, what message do you want them to hear from you?

Wright: That we love them. That they’re safe in Utah. That we want them here. That they are productive members of society that they’re no different than anybody else. And that I want to learn from them and I want to listen to them and that they don’t need to go anywhere else and they don’t need to be anybody different. They just need to be who they are and that Governor Wright loves them.

Williams: Let’s talk about the Republican elephant in the room. You’re running mate is Congressman Rob Bishop. Historically, he has not been super supportive of our community, if at all. He has a zero percent rating on the Human Rights Campaign Congressional scorecard. If you win, there’s going to be a lot of LGBTQ Utahns who are going to be really really suspicious that they, perhaps, won’t be welcome in your administration.

Wright: Well, look, I’m going to be the governor. Rob is my running mate, and he’s lieutenant governor. Rob is a good man. He’s a decent man. I’ve gotten to know him well, so I want people to know that about him. You know he has a record, and he should be asked those questions directly. Those are fair game. But I’m the governor. You know where I stand; you know I’m an ally. You know how strong I am on these issues of equality and making sure that we see eye-to-eye and that we’re working together.

Wiliams: I’m curious, as the next governor of Utah, will you be willing to meet with transgender leaders, transgender youth and hear their stories and learn their struggles, and when issues arise related to that community, will you have them at the table with you?

Wright: Absolutely. That’s a great question. I think I said earlier I want to be a governor for all, and that includes the “T.” And I mean that and when I’m governor, anybody would be welcome to come in and have a seat at the table and talk and let’s see what we can find in common. Let’s see what we can agree on, but let’s understand each other, and let’s love each other.

I really believe that love can change everything.

Here is the Forum, in its entirety.

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