Gehrke: In Orrin Hatch’s LGBTQ comments, we witness the evolution of a senator and our country

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

It has taken too long, but maybe Sen. Orrin Hatch is finally getting it.

On Wednesday, Hatch offered some poignant comments on the Senate floor directed to “my young friends in the LGBT” community. He focused on the prevalence of suicide, especially among young people.

It was a spot-on message, delivered with a tone that I had not heard in many years of reporting on the senator.

“No one should feel less because of their orientation,” Hatch said. “They 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 of God’s creations. We need the grace, beauty and brilliance they bring to the world.”

He went on: “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 other. That duty is to treat one another with dignity and respect. It is not simply to tolerate but to love.”

Read those passages again and then remind yourself: This is coming from Orrin Hatch.

The senator has never really been the same sort of anti-gay firebrand as, say, a Mike Pence, who climbed the political ladder largely due to his strident social conservatism. Nor has Hatch ever been a strong ally.

“I think his instincts were always pretty good, but he had relatively limited room to maneuver politically,” said state Sen. Jim Dabakis, a Democrat and an openly gay legislator.

About the time he entered the Senate in 1977, Hatch objected to gay schoolteachers, believing they had a “psychological deficiency.”

“I wouldn’t want to see homosexuals teaching school any more than I’d want to see members of the American Nazi Party teaching school,” he told University of Utah students at the time.

In 1999, he questioned why civil-rights laws should be extended to cover gays and lesbians.

“It’s up to them, that they do have a choice, where an African-American has no choice with regard to their skin color. So that’s why we have civil-rights laws to protect African-Americans from discrimination,” he said in an interview at that time.

The Human Rights Campaign annual scorecard says Hatch has voted with the LGBTQ community 9.5 percent of the time over the past 16 years. And very recently — earlier this month — he praised a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that, on rather technical grounds, said a Colorado bakery could not be punished for refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding.

But let’s give Hatch credit where it is due. In 1990, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, he co-sponsored the Ryan White AIDS CARE Act, providing comprehensive care and research funding to people living with HIV, one of the most notable achievements of Hatch’s long career.

In the early 1990s, facing a backlash for hiring a gay committee staffer, Hatch pushed back hard, arguing the abilities of the staffer were what was important, not the person’s sexual orientation. In 2013, he was one of 10 Republicans who voted for a bill that would have outlawed LGBT workplace discrimination nationwide.

In 2016, after Ben Carson (now secretary of housing and urban development) said the existence of transgender identity is the “height of absurdity,” Hatch dismissed Carson, saying it was clear people are born that way, marking a shift from his past statements about choice.

And last year, Hatch broke with President Donald Trump’s order banning transgender people from military service, saying, “I don’t think we should be discriminating against anyone. … Transgender people are people and deserve the best we can do for them.”

“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,” Hatch said Wednesday. “We owe it to each other to love loudly.”

It’s comments like these that would suggest maybe Hatch’s eyes have been opened to LGBTQ issues. And if these views are now mainstream among even stalwart Republicans like Hatch, it marks another milestone in the long, slow evolutionary process — not just for the senator, but for the rest of the country.

If that’s the case, it’s something for which we can all be grateful.