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- “It’s been 98% support,” Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie says about coming out in Republican-centric Utah. “In no way has it been as bad as I feared it would be.”
Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee has never had a particularly chummy relationship with fellow Republican commissioner Nathan Ivie. So when things grew even colder last month after Ivie came out as gay, nobody was particularly surprised.
"Bill is being Bill," one of the office staff members explains, noting that Lee now seems determined to ignore Ivie's existence, even going so far as to avert his eyes when the two pass in the commission's office. "He's clearly having a hard time with it."
Lee isn't the only one.
Conservative activist Gayle Ruzicka—a sure bet for reporters in need of a self-righteous response to pretty much anything—told The Salt Lake Tribune that it was "astounding" and "very upsetting" to see so many people respond with love and support after Ivie's announcement that he and his wife, who remain close friends and co-parents, were getting a divorce.
"Just because he left them for other men does not make it a brave thing," Ruzicka told the Trib.
In his office on the second floor of the Utah County Government Building in Provo, where American flag paintings, bald eagle statues, and acrylic awards for good governance are the décor de rigueur, Ivie says he expected this sort of reaction. And more.
Except, in the weeks that have passed since Ivie came out in a Facebook video, there hasn't been much more. Not as news about the cowboy-hat-wearin', horse-wranglin', AR-15 shootin' local politician's newly public sexual orientation made its way around the country. Not as constituents in Utah County—one of the most conservative bastions in the nation—came to terms with the news.
"It's been 98% support," Ivie tells City Weekly. "In no way has it been as bad as I feared it would be."
And that has got Ivie thinking. Maybe people like Lee and Ruzicka don't actually represent the Republican Party all that well anymore. Maybe, when it comes to the way the party treats LGBTQ Americans, rank-and-file Republicans are ready for a change. And maybe, if that change doesn't happen soon, the party Ivie has supported since his teenage years is doomed.
After all, a majority of Republicans now say they support laws protecting LGBTQ individuals from discrimination, according to a Public Religion Research Institute survey published in March. Not surprisingly, the numbers are even higher among young Republicans—a group that, for obvious reasons, the GOP has to attract more of to stay relevant. (Democrats have a 27-percentage-point advantage over Republicans among Millennial voters, according to the Pew Research Center. And there is no single issue that appears to better predict membership in Gen Z than support for LGBTQ rights.)
Back in 2017, Pew found for the first time that a majority of Americans identifying as Republican or Republican-leaning independents favored same-sex marriage. Again, young Republicans were even more supportive.
But those views starkly contrast with the national party's platform, which still calls for the federal government to recognize marriage as "the union of one man and one woman," rejects the Supreme Court's 2015 ruling striking down state bans on same-sex marriage, and urges the ruling's reversal.
The Utah County Republican Party's platform is even more staunchly anti-gay. It explicitly opposes efforts to include LGBTQ Utahns as a protected minority.
"It strikes me as anti-freedom," Ivie says, "which is in direct contradiction to what the Republican Party is supposed to be. We're the party that freed the slaves. We pride ourselves on being the party of Lincoln. We believe that when Thomas Jefferson said all men were created equal, he was talking about everybody. We've lost track of that, because we've been so fearful of something we don't understand."
Young voters, Ivie explains, are increasingly making it clear that they won't support politicians who support discriminatory policies, such as those in the GOP's platform. He thinks Republican leaders are going to have to decide what they value most.
"If we want to stop the systematic tide of socialism, the over-taxation of people, and the redistribution of wealth in this country, we need to set aside our prejudices against the LGBT community," he declares.
The GOP isn't just missing out on young voters. In a 2014 Gallup survey, 20% of LGBTQ Americans of any age identified as conservative. "That's a minority, but it's a sizeable minority of LGBT voters," says Ohio State University historian Howard Clayton, who has researched the history of the Log Cabin Republicans, the nation's largest group of gay conservatives. "Some of these are people who are voting for Democrats, in part, because of Republican homophobia."
As president of the Utah chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, Melvin Nimer agrees that a change is overdue. But he's not optimistic.
"I think we're talking about a full generation before it's going to happen," Nimer says. "Most people over 50, they're stuck. They won't change and they don't care how critical it is."
While even ardent members don't usually read their parties' platforms, "extremely divisive language on an issue like LGBTQ rights" doesn't often fly under the radar, says University of Houston political science professor Elizabeth Simas, who has researched how platforms impact public perception about parties. She thinks the GOP platform will shift in coming years, to become "less focused on what homosexual individuals can or cannot do."
And, if that was the entirety of the shift, perhaps the GOP could begin to work its way out of the political hole it has dug for itself as an anti-gay party. Simas believes, however, that the GOP is likely to increase its focus on defending religious freedom. But when it comes to young voters, she adds, "as long as that means supporting policies that allow people and businesses to deny services to others simply on the basis of sexual orientation, that may be a hard sell."
And fellow political scientist Susan Burgess, who teaches classes on gay politics at Ohio University, says it's easy to misinterpret the polls. Yes, she notes, a majority of Americans support gay rights, and "... the younger people in the party are moving away from the traditional rejection of homosexuality," but that doesn't mean it's the most important issue to them.
Utah State University political scientist Michael Lyons agrees. "Public sentiment has shifted enormously," he says. "But when you ask people what the most important problem is, gay rights comes in about 40th."
In other words, even if the Republican rank-and-file are ready, willing and eager to embrace Ivie, the pressure might not be there to make the GOP leadership care—especially while evangelical Christians make up such a significant part of the party's base.
All of which means Ivie—who attempted suicide when he was 22 and has said he came out to show people in a similar situation "that they're loved and that they're valued"—might continue to be part of a party whose official policies far more resemble Ruzicka's words and Lee's actions.
Does that mean the party Ivie serves is dangerous for LGBTQ Utahns?
"It is," he sighs.