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Utah Sen. Daniel Thatcher’s evolution on LGBTQ issues, warning for GOP

Republican State Senator Daniel Thatcher was first elected to represent the left-leaning West Valley City area in the Utah Senate in 2011. He told the New York Times in an interview for its “First Person” podcast that when he was first elected, he thought LGBTQ issues were “none of my business.”

“At the time, my attitude was more that it’s none of my business. It doesn’t matter if I like it or don’t. It doesn’t matter if I understand it or don’t. The question is, what should the government do about it? And the answer is nothing. We should leave you alone,” he said. “That’s why, when I was deciding to get involved in politics, I looked at both parties. And I chose to be a Republican because I believe that the government should do less things to us. And so for me, I was asked about LGBTQ issues when I was running. And my response was always, it’s none of my business. It’s none of my business.”

What changed over the years was his focus on passing an actual hate crime law in the state. The one on the books at the time was unenforceable and had, indeed, never been used successfully.

“For me, a lot of it comes back to working on this hate crime legislation. And that was what started opening my eyes to the injustice that was happening in the LGBTQ community,” he said. “The other part of my focus and work that brought me to this position was the work that I’ve done on behavioral health and suicide prevention. And so as I started operating in the suicide-prevention space, one of the things that really stood out to me was how disproportionately it impacts and affects the LGBTQ community and, especially, transgender youth.”

He had befriended a transgender man and he called him to ask about the disparity between suicide in the general community and suicide among transgender people.

“He called me back an hour or two later and said, will you come to my friend’s house? And so my wife and I went to a house. And I was introduced to a transgender young man, a teenager. And his father told me the story of this kid’s life, of growing up, of how difficult things were,” Thatcher explained. “And I’ll tell you, it changed my life. It absolutely changed my life because when I hear people talking, it’s not generic. It’s not random. It’s not faceless. There are real people who are affected by anti-trans legislation.”

Thatcher said his revelations to fellow Republican lawmakers “was not well received.”

“That’s part of the battle that I’ve been fighting all along. In many ways, I’m more libertarian in that I think the government should do less and leave us alone. However, we do have the Constitution. We do have the responsibility to protect and preserve rights,” he said.

In 2021, when Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, introduced her bill to ban transgender women from competing in school sports, Thatcher said he was concerned.

“I knew it was going to hurt people, both trans and not. I knew it was unconstitutional. So I knew it was going to be overturned. And one of the conversations that I tried to have with the trans community is — look, I can’t stop it. I will fight. And I will call it out. But I’m going to lose this fight. You need to know that. It’s going to pass. But the comfort that you should take is knowing that it will be overturned,” he said. “I’m not an attorney, and I can look at that and tell you this bill is unconstitutional on its face. You can’t single out a group for unequal protection under the law. This isn’t fuzzy.”

Redistricting, he said, made his controversial stands (at least in conservative circles) more problematic. His district went from leaning Democrat to fairly firm Republican. Delegates to the Republican State Convention, who basically choose who will represent their district on a much deeper level than the average voters, pushed him to change his stance on transgender athletes in schools.

“I had heard from my delegates, who said flat out, ‘If you don’t protect our kids from transgender people, then you’re out,’” he said. “So I actually consulted with people that I love and people that I respect. And I said, look, here’s where I am. This is hurting me. This hurts my heart. But I don’t see any way I can fight this. I don’t see any way to win this. And I feel like if I do not vote for this bill, I probably lose.”

He went on to vote no on the bill, along with six Republicans and all Democrats. The bill, however, passed overwhelmingly.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox vetoed the bill, saying in part, “rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few.”

The legislature called itself into special session to override Cox’s veto. As Thatcher did the math of getting enough support to defeat the effort, he was coming up one vote short. He knew the override would happen, and his vote would make no difference. He talked with 80 Republican delegates of his district right after his no vote on the sports bill and “every single one of them said, ‘We are opposed to the position you took on this bill.'”

“I didn’t have one single delegate say, ‘We appreciate the principled stand you took.’ They didn’t care. They were so angry that I wouldn’t speak out against transgenderism that they told me flat out, ‘If you don’t override the governor’s veto, you’re fired,'” he told the podcast.

But his conscience, as in the previous vote, was weighing on him heavily.

“So I did consult, leading up to the override, with Equality Utah, and some friends there, and with the leading transgender voices, and with people that I love and care about. And so basically, the conversation was this — Look, I have three Republican challengers, all of whom are completely insane, none of whom would hesitate for a second to pass a bill that would hurt your kids and hurt your community. If I do what I think I’m going to do, I probably lose,” he explained. “And the person that I respect in the state of Utah more than anyone called me up. And she said, ‘Don’t be so selfish. We need you in the Senate more than we need you to fall on a sword.’ It was the last person in the world I thought would ever counsel me to do different than my conscience.”

On the floor of the state senate, Thatcher took to the microphone when it was time to cast his vote on the veto override.

“I apologize for giving a lengthy explanation of my vote. But, as there was no debate, there’s really no other option,” he started. “Not one state that has passed a bill like this has actually had it upheld. So what we’re really doing here, it’s political theater because it won’t go into effect. So we won’t get any of the benefits from passing this bill. But we will get absolutely all of the harms.

“At the urging of several of my closest transgender friends, I considered, briefly, changing my vote so that I could do better at convention, so that I could win with the delegates, so that I can show that I’m conservative. Well, in my world, conservative does not mean turning your back on your principles. It does not mean voting against the Constitution. And it does not mean waffling when you know in your heart what the right thing is to do.

“Mr. President, I cannot support the veto override.”

When he gave that speech, he believed in his heart it was the last thing he’d do as a Utah State Senator. He went into the Republican State Convention knowing he would lose his seat.

“All of these people who were in lockstep, saying, ‘We don’t want Thatcher, he’s a moderate. ‘We don’t want Thatcher, he’s a liberal,’ out loud, they were saying, ‘You’re dead. We’re not going to support you,'” he said. “But it’s a secret ballot. And more than 60 percent of them marked their ballot for me even after telling me they wouldn’t support me or wouldn’t vote for me. And so I don’t think it’s as bad as people think. But it’s still pretty dang bad.”

This year at the beginning of the legislative session, Republican leaders pushed several bills affecting transgender youth through with little discussion. Thatcher, who suffered a stroke in November, was the only Republican senator to speak and vote against the measures.

He testified that the bill banning doctors from treating transgender youth meddles in private family decisions, restricts health care for vulnerable youth, and could invite lawsuits against the state.

“Every credible medical organization on the planet says that [treatment for transgender youth] is the safest, best, and most appropriate care to save those lives,” Thatcher said, testifying remotely while he recovered from several strokes.

Several bills passed the legislature and the governor signed them.

Thatcher still believes that these bills are political theater. They are being pushed by national organizations that control much of the Republican party.

“These Republicans didn’t wake up one day and say, hey, we’re going to go dunk on trans kids. They’re being manipulated,” Thatcher told the New York Times. “People will believe any lie if they want it to be true or if they’re afraid that it’s true. So there is some evil force that gets a benefit from pushing specific agendas. You’d have to think this is an organized agenda.”

On the New York Times podcast, host Lulu Garcia-Navarro noted that much of the anti-trans legislation is organized and well-funded by Christian nationalist groups like the powerful Alliance Defending Freedom, which have pushed copycat legislation all over the country. They have succeeded in forcing the GOP to handle these polarizing issues, almost to the exclusion of more pressing country-building issues.

“[Republicans are] being told this is a social contagion. These kids are popping up because we’ve made it popular. Bullshit. It’s becoming more common because it is becoming safer. It is not safe. But it’s safer,” he said. “As it becomes safer for people to come out, more and more people are going to realize this is someone I care about. This is a family member. This is a friend. This is a friend’s kid.”

“My best friend from college has a trans kid. One of my dear friends from high school reached out to me completely out of the blue last year and said, ‘Hey, we haven’t spoken since high school. But I have five kids, and two of them are trans. Thanks for sticking up for my kids.'”

Asked how he reconciles his stands on LGBTQ issues with his faith, he said it comes down to his belief in a loving god.

“I have had people who claim to be Christian reach out to me and tell me that I can’t be a Christian unless I hate certain people,” he said. “Well, I don’t know who your Christ is, but he kind of sucks.”

Garcia-Navarro also asked about how he fits into the Republican Party of today, versus the party it once was.

“There are Republicans that I can’t vote for,” he said. “But the problem is there is no space for me in the Democratic party that doesn’t believe in smaller government, that doesn’t believe in more individual rights. So as a whole, I can’t change parties because the other side doesn’t believe in keeping government within the bounds of the Constitution.”

“But more and more, the Republican Party doesn’t do that either,” he continued. “I still have hope that they’ll come around. If we want that to happen, we have to start electing people with moral fortitude. If you don’t know what your core principles are, then it’s easy to fall for the flavor of the week. What are we mad about this week? We have to run a bill.”

“I liken politics these days to 3-year-olds playing soccer. Do you ever watch three-year-olds play soccer? They don’t know where the lines are. They don’t know where the goals are. They just want to kick the ball. And it’s just this mass of every single kid on the field, all running around, trying to kick the ball. They don’t care where it goes. They just want to kick the ball as hard as they can. That’s politics today.”

On the issue of transgender rights, Thatcher believes these bills and this rhetoric will come back to haunt the Republican Party.

“This is not sustainable, and it’s going to be pretty hard to come back from this position. But as more and more voters have more and more people in their lives that they care about, this is something that is going to lead to single-voter change,” he said. “I think what’s going to happen is the first party that says, ‘You know what? We are going to come back to the Constitution. We’re going to be about individual rights. We’re going to protect civil liberty.’ I think that’s the party that wins for the next 10 years.”

If you are having thoughts of suicide or are concerned that someone you know may be, resources are available to help. The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 is for people of all ages and identities. Trans Lifeline, designed for transgender or gender-nonconforming people, can be reached at (877) 565-8860. The lifeline also provides resources to help with other crises, such as domestic violence situations. The Trevor Project Lifeline, for LGBTQ+ youth (ages 24 and younger), can be reached at (866) 488-7386. Users can also access chat services at TheTrevorProject.org/Help or text START to 678678.

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