In passionate speech, Sen. Orrin Hatch urges compassion for the gay community, help for suicide prevention

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Chamber will award Senator Orrin G. Hatch as the 39th Giant in Our City, in honor of his exceptional and distinguished service and extraordinary professional achievement, Saturday, June 9, 2018 at Grand America Hotel.

Washington • Sen. Orrin Hatch gave a passionate speech Wednesday encouraging compassion for the gay community, especially young adults struggling with suicidal thoughts as the Utah Republican also called on Congress to pass a nationwide crisis hotline.

Hatch only nine days ago applauded a Supreme Court decision to allow a Colorado baker to refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. On Wednesday, he said he wanted to address the spike in suicides across the country and how it has hit harder among LGBT youths who face estrangement among friends and families.

No one should feel less because of their orientation,” Hatch said from the Senate floor. “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,” he said, “and we desperately need them.”

Hatch, who is retiring at the end of the year, was a top cheerleader for the Defense of Marriage Act, which said states didn’t have to recognize same-sex marriages from other states and prohibited the federal government from recognizing gay marriage, barring couples from receiving benefits afforded opposite-sex marriages.

Hatch criticized the 2013 Supreme Court ruling striking down the act — saying that while he believes marriage decisions were best left to the states, that the court “used its own personal opinion” rather than relying on the law.

It has been 30 years since Hatch, speaking extemporaneously to a group in southern Utah, called the Democrats “the party of homosexuals” as a way of castigating the gay-rights movement and the opposition party. After initially denying he said it, Hatch later stated he regretted the remark.

Hatch said Wednesday that no matter one’s political or religious leanings, everyone should support the gay community and love as Jesus taught. He said he chose to give his speech during Pride Month to make the point.

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,” Hatch said. “That duty is to treat one another with dignity and respect. It is not simply to tolerate but to love.”

Hatch added that a person’s gender identity is not a choice and “these young men and women deserve to feel young, cared for, and accepted for who they are.”

We all have a stake in this,” Hatch said. “We all have family or loved ones who feel marginalized because of gender identity or sexual orientation, and we need to be there for them.”

Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, welcomed Hatch’s remarks and lauded him for speaking so strongly for the gay community.

“Sen. Hatch’s comments were encouraging,” Williams said. “It is heartening to see a leader in the Republican Party speak out for LGBTQ youth. This is not new for the senior senator.”

Williams said Hatch backed the Employment Nondiscrimination Act and called out President Donald Trump when he tried to ban transgender military troops.

In the face of an administration that regularly appoints Cabinet members and judiciary nominees who are openly hostile to LGBTQ liberty, we hope more Republicans will step forward and champion the rights of gay and transgender Americans,” Williams added in a statement. “In response to Hatch’s support of the Masterpiece Cakeshop, clearly, we have differences, but every day there are more areas where we agree than disagree. We are making progress around these difficult issues.”

Human Rights Campaign Government Affairs Director David Stacy told The Tribune that the group welcomes Hatch’s “heartfelt remarks on the challenges LGBTQ youth face around acceptance, depression, and suicide.”

“Like many Americans, his views have evolved as he has learned more about what it means to be LGBTQ,” Stacy said, “and we hope more Senators reconsider their previous opposition to essential civil rights protections for LGBTQ Americans.”

While saying there is no public policy solution to prevent suicides, Hatch also called on the House to pass legislation that would create a national hotline similar to 911 that people considering ending their own lives could call for help. The Senate approved Hatch’s legislation creating the hotline in November, but the bill had stalled in the House.

A House subcommittee Wednesday passed companion legislation by Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, that Hatch hopes can come up for a full House vote soon.

“After the recent passing of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline jumped 25 percent,” Stewart said after the subcommittee passage. “While the hotline number has increased access, I know we can do better. The current dialing code is cumbersome and hard to recall. We need to create a hotline dialing code that is short and easy to remember. It’s imperative that this legislation get signed into law quickly.”

The state Legislature in Utah, which the Centers for Disease Control says has the fifth highest suicide rate in the nation, recently passed a bill to expand its crisis hotline to ensure it is staffed 24/7.