In a sweeping, one-hour meeting with The Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial board on Monday, the Salt Lake County Republican Party’s new communication director made claims about the LGBTQ community that the county health department described as “wildly inaccurate” and Equality Utah said are “deeply irresponsible.”
Dave Robinson joined county GOP Chairman Scott Miller, who has been on the job for a little more than a month, for a conversation about where they see the party headed on issues ranging from water to land use and the LGBTQ community.
Miller said he’s looking to make his party “relevant again” during his roughly nine-month term, noting that it has been “apathetic” in the past. In the future, he said, the party needs to work to represent the entire county and not just the “far right.”
“As far as changing the direction of the party, [it] is really just to re-engage with our communities as a whole,” he said, mentioning people of color and communities that are concerned about environmental protection.
Robinson, the party’s communication director since late July, also noted that some people view the Republican Party as unfriendly toward the gay community.
“I said, you can own your own business, you can run for office — I don’t think there’s a better time on this planet in history to be gay than right now,” Robinson said, recounting his recent response to his neighbors when they expressed beliefs about an intolerant GOP.
But what about the high rate of suicide among the LGBTQ community? they countered.
“So then I walked through and I said, ‘I actually think it has more to do with the lifestyle that the gays are leading that they refuse to have any scrutiny with,’” said Robinson, who is gay.
Robinson told The Tribune that while many people attribute the high suicide rate to the culture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or to Utah’s high altitude, that may not capture the full story. He said he knows people in the community who have had “over 2,000 sex partners” and said he thinks that could be at the root of “some of the self-loathing to the point of suicide.”
“You talk to some of these people that have had grundles of sex partners and the self-loathing and basically the unhappiness and the self-hatred level is tremendously high,” he said, noting that they may turn to sex to fill a hole left by a lack of acceptance in Utah. “The gay community really needs to start having some conversations within their community, saying how is our lifestyle affecting our mental health.”
Utah’s youth suicide rate has grown at an alarming pace, according to recent studies conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state’s suicide rate among young adults ages 10 to 17 had more than doubled from 2011 to 2015, growing at an annual clip nearly four times faster than the national average.
In all, 150 youths died by suicide over the five-year period, and it’s thought that LGBTQ youth are at a higher risk.
Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, pushed back on Robinson’s comments about the suicide rates, saying his theory is based on “old, tired stereotypes and tropes” that members of the LGBTQ community are promiscuous. He also noted that the suicide problem is most prevalent among youth, many of whom have likely never had a sex partner.
“Condemning who and how we love is a strange way to build a bridge between the Republican Party and the LGBTQ community,” Williams said. “Mr. Robinson’s rhetoric is deeply irresponsible and unbecoming of a leader in a political party in the state of Utah.”
At the meeting with The Salt Lake Tribune, Miller said high suicide rates are an example of one of the “internal issues” in a community that the party wants to have dialogue with. But he told the newspaper later that he doesn’t necessarily agree with Robinson’s stance that a multitude of partners may contribute to high rates of suicide, noting that he doesn’t have enough information on that particular issue.
As far as his stance on the LGBTQ community, Miller told The Tribune that although he would likely “catch some grief” from hard-right Republicans, he thinks that allowing members of the LGBTQ community to “live their life the way they deem fit” is a fundamental tenet of the Constitution.
Robinson also said in the meeting that he thinks issues around the PrEP pill, a daily preventive strategy for those at risk of contracting HIV, need more attention as a factor for the rise of STDs in the LGBTQ community and also to the rise of mental-health issues.
He said the gay community “went to the county health department and said, ‘Look, if you love the gays, then you need to give us and all of our people this medication for free.’ And so the county’s like, ‘Yes, we love the gays,’ so they start giving them all this medicine.”
Then, he said, members of the LGBTQ community began having unprotected sex like “bunny rabbits” at monthly “sex parties” because they were unaware that the pill did not prevent STDs.
Lynn Beltran, the STD and HIV epidemiology supervisor at the Salt Lake County Health Department, called Robinson’s claims “wildly inaccurate.”
Though she noted that Salt Lake County did work with a member of the LGBTQ community on PrEP outreach, she said it has never given out free pills — and that the county’s STD clinic isn’t even able to prescribe the medication.
She agreed that there has been a national lack of education on PrEP that may lead more people to engage in unprotected sex.
Robinson said he relayed the information from the health department as he understood it and that there may have been some mischaracterization in his conversation with the county.
But Williams said Robinson’s statements are a misguided way to reach the group the county Republican party is looking to engage with.
“He is mischaracterizing and spreading misinformation about our community,” Williams said. “And if he truly wants to help the Republican party open up their doors to actually invite the LGBTQ community in, he needs to stop this salacious and egregious misinformation.”