Daily 202: GOP senator urges love for LGBT youths in Pride Month speech

Thursday , June 14, 2018 - 9:01 AM

James Hohmann

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

WASHINGTON - Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a socially conservative 84-year-old Mormon, was long one of the most outspoken critics of gay people in Congress.

In 1977, as a freshman, Hatch said gay people should never be allowed to teach in public schools because they have a “psychological deficiency.”

“I wouldn’t want to see homosexuals teaching school anymore than I’d want to see members of the American Nazi Party teaching school,” he told a group of students.

In 1988, he referred to Democrats as “the party of homosexuals.”

In the 1990s, he championed the Defense of Marriage Act - which prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex unions and barred couples from receiving benefits.

When the Supreme Court struck down the law in 2013, Hatch ripped the justices for relying on their “personal opinion.”

But the times, they are a changin‘.

Hatch, retiring after 42 years as the longest-serving Republican senator in American history, appears to have had a change of heart. In honor of Pride Month, Hatch took to the Senate floor on Wednesday to send “a message of love” to “my LGBT brothers and sisters.”

“These young men and women deserve to feel loved, cared for and accepted for who they are,” the senator said in a heartfelt speech. “I don’t think they chose to be who they are. They’re born the way they are. And we ought to understand that. They deserve to know that they belong and that our society is stronger because of them. . . .

“No one should ever feel less because of their gender identity or sexual orientation,” he continued. “LGBT youth deserve our unwavering love and support. They deserve our validation and the assurance that not only is there a place for them in this society, but that it is far better off because of them. These young people need us - and we desperately need them. We need their light to illuminate the richness and diversity of God’s creations. We need the grace, beauty and brilliance they bring to the world.”

These comments are especially notable because PresidentDonald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have pointedly declined to acknowledge Pride Month. After Barack Obama issued proclamations all eight Junes he was in office, the White House chose not to do so last year or this year.

It’s not that Trump has been stingy about such things. He’s signed proclamations that this month is Great Outdoors Month, National Ocean Month, National Homeownership Month and African-American Music Appreciation Month.

Instead, Trump has ordered that transgender people should be banned from serving in the military. He’s also removed references to LGBTQ people from various federal websites, rolled back protections for transgender inmates, employees and students and disbanded the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.

While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a short statement acknowledging Pride Month, senior leaders at the Pentagon declined to formally acknowledge the observances for the first time since the practice became routine after Obama repealed the military’s ban on homosexuals serving openly. (Trump’s transgender ban has not gone into effect because of court challenges.)

Against this backdrop and his own history, Hatch pleaded with his fellow conservatives to not just tolerate, but love, those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. “Mr. President, ensuring that our LGBT friends feel loved and accepted is not a political issue,” said Hatch, who as president pro tempore is third in line to the presidency. “We all have a stake in this. We all have family or loved ones who have felt marginalized in one way or another because of gender identity or sexual orientation - and we need to be there for them. . . . Regardless of where you stand on the cultural issues of the day - whether you are a religious conservative, a secular liberal or somewhere in between - we all have a special duty to each another. That duty is to treat one another with dignity and respect. It is not simply to tolerate, but to love.”

An epidemic of teen suicides drove Hatch to reconsider his previous thinking. A report published last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed Utah has the fifth highest suicide rate in the nation. About 630 of Hatch’s constituents kill themselves each year - around one every 14 hours. Many of the victims are gay or transgender teenagers who experience bullying and discrimination. The stigma is especially strong in a state as conservative and religious as Utah, where some young gay people still become ostracized and estranged from their families.

Hatch came to understand this by talking to parents, visiting schools and studying various reports. The CDC has found that LGBT youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of their straight peers and are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide. A separate study in 2015 found that 40 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide in their lifetime. That’s nine times the American population at large.

The senator believes that publicly acknowledging being gay is not a choice is the only way to address this rampant problem. “There are people out there who really suffer, who didn’t choose to be the way they are but who are, and we have to be compassionate enough to help them,” said Hatch. “So I hope that we will, and I hope that our wonderful country will take these things to heart.”

Hatch is trying to shepherd into law a bill that would create a new simple three-number national hotline for suicide prevention, akin to 9-1-1. The legislation already passed the Senate and cleared a House committee on Wednesday. The senator hopes that the high-profile suicides of chef Anthony Bourdain and designer Kate Spade will give fresh urgency to bringing up the bill for a vote on the House floor. But he emphasized that the suicides which get less attention are equally important.

“Mr. President, if there were ever a time to show our LGBT friends just how much we love them, it is now - in a world where millions suffer in silence,” said Hatch. We owe it to each other to love loudly!”

Hatch’s change in tone mirrors a broader shift in public attitudes.A Pew study released last October showed that 7 in 10 Americans now believe gay people should be accepted by society, compared to 24 percent who say it should be discouraged. The share supporting acceptance rose 7 percent just last year, and it’s up 19 points in the last decade.

But there’s still a significant partisan divide. While 83 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say homosexuality should be accepted by society, only 54 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners do. Four in 10 think it should be discouraged.

There’s also a strong correlation based on age. For instance, 83 percent of those between the ages 18 to 29 say gay people should be accepted by society, compared with only 58 percent of those who are 65 and older.

This is also not the first time that the octogenarian has spoken up in defense of the LGBT community when others on the right would not. Hatch opposed Trump’s ban on transgender troops last year, and he’s endorsed the Employment Nondiscrimination Act.

During the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in 2016, when Ben Carson said transgender identity “doesn’t make any sense” and called it “the height of absurdity,” Hatch criticized him. “Of course there are people who are transgender,” the senator said during a radio interview. “I don’t think they choose to be that way. They are human beings who deserve the best we can give them.”

But critics respond that Hatch’s actions matter more than his rhetoric. Yes, he condemned Carson. But then he voted to confirm him as secretary of housing and urban development, where he’s rolled back protections for transgender people who live in homeless shelters. He also voted for Betsy DeVos to be secretary of education, a perch she’s used to roll back protections for transgender students. And he’s supported the confirmation of many Trump judicial nominees who have been critical of transgender rights.

Zack Ford, the LGBTQ editor for the liberal blog Think Progress, argues that Hatch’s speech “rings hollow": “Hatch is a co-sponsor of the so-called ‘First Amendment Defense Act’ (FADA), which would create a religious license to discriminate against LGBTQ people. And just last week, he ‘applauded’ the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. . . . If Hatch is looking to support LGBTQ youth, he might consider instead co-sponsoring the Equality Act, which would create federal nondiscrimination protections for the LGBTQ community. Not a single Republican in the Senate currently supports it.”

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With The Washington Post’s Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve.

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