Gehrke: Utah now has its first openly gay Republican officeholder and his courage gives the state an opportunity to grow

In this July 4, 2018 photo Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie waves during the Freedom Festival's Grand Parade in Provo, Utah. The Republican lawmaker in a heavily-Mormon area of Utah has publicly come out as gay. Ivie said his announcement, Wednesday, May 22, 2019, was inspired in part by his work with families who have lost gay children to suicide. (Evan Cobb/The Daily Herald via AP)

Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie took to Facebook last week to make a significant announcement, and playing in the background of his video was an acoustic version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.”

If you’re of my generation, you probably know it. “Well, I’ve been afraid of changing,” the song goes, “… but time makes you bolder, even children get older, and I’m getting older, too.”

Ivie’s announcement, as you’ve probably heard, is that he is gay.

“I realized I could not continue to live a lie,” he said. “It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right for anyone.”

From a purely political standpoint, the courage Ivie showed is remarkable. Utah County is, of course, Republican country, some of the reddest in the nation. Not only that, it’s that special strain of strident moralistic Republicanism that looks with disdain on people like Ivie.

Robert Gehrke

The county party’s platform still opposes same-sex marriage and legal protections for members of the LGBTQ community.

Ivie is the first and only openly gay Republican officeholder in Utah history. (Willy Marshall, who served as mayor of the small town of Big Water, had been a Republican but was a Libertarian by the time he was elected.)

He received a heartwarming rush of support, much of it from fellow Republicans. But Ivie’s announcement also comes with obvious political risk.

On Facebook, some Republicans have condemned Ivie for embarrassing the party. Former state GOP secretary Drew Chamberlain predicted Ivie would be forced to resign from office and replaced by the county party — although that seems a stretch.

Ivie has been mentioned as a possible challenger to U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams next year, or he could run for a seat in Utah County, which is considering a shift from a commission to a council. It’s a safe bet his opponents will try to use his announcement in a campaign against him and, despite his solid Republican track record, it will work to some degree.

But it also poses an opportunity. Ivie has said he doesn’t want to be defined by his sexuality, but he could be an important voice in the party, proving to his fellow Republicans that it is possible to be conservative — “committed … to faith, family and freedom,” as Ivie put it — and be gay.

It’s a message that Mel Nimer has tried to convey for years. Nimer, who is president of Utah Log Cabin Republicans, said that when they used to have booths at Republican conventions 15 years ago they would be met with “flak” from those in the party.

It wasn’t until people got to know him and be his friend, Nimer said, that they started to open up and say “he really is a human being and worthy of our time and attention and worthy of our consideration.”

Far more important than any political calculus is the message that Ivie sent to people who identify as LGBTQ in Utah County and across the state.

Ivie is a horse trainer and recounted in his video how “I’ve spent most of my life feeling like the horse that was defective, broken, destined for the kill bin.”

From the time he was 9 years old, he said, he had struggled with his attractions that were not what was expected of him growing up in a conservative, religious upbringing. When he was 22, he attempted to take his own life. It is a tragically familiar story.

Ivie survived and spent the next decades suppressing his feelings. He married and had two children before realizing he was “living someone else’s life, rather than my own,” as he put it. “It felt deceptive, not just to others, but to myself.”

Ivie, now older and bolder, went public because he believed that there was likely some young version of himself contemplating ending his or her life. “They need to know they’re valued,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune, “they’re loved.”

It’s a sentiment similar to that shared by Brigham Young University student Matt Easton, who used his commencement speech to come out and to recount his own struggles with his sexuality. “It was in these quiet moments of pain and confusion that I felt another triumph, that of coming to terms, not with who I thought I should be, but who the Lord has made me,” Easton said.

It’s a message of hope that could save lives. It’s a message young Utahns can’t hear enough. And if the aim of politics is to improve people’s lives, Nathan Ivie may have achieved the biggest political accomplishment of his career.