Fate of official rests in Salt Lake County GOP’s hands after LGBTQ suicide remark

Steve Griffin / The Salt Lake Tribune David Robinson, Republican candidate for Salt Lake County mayor, talks with the Salt Lake Tribune editorial board and the paper's offices in Salt Lake City Thursday September 22, 2016.

Sandy • The chairman of the Salt Lake County Republican Party will leave up to members of the Central Committee the decision of whether to fire its communications director, who has come under fire from members of his own party after telling The Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial board that suicide rates in the LGBTQ community may be associated with having many sex partners.

“We have a decision to make here tonight,” Scott Miller told the body at the meeting in Sandy on Thursday evening, after reading a statement about Dave Robinson’s comments. “I have been told by elected officials that if I don’t have his head, they’re going to take mine. I don’t report to them, so I’m going to leave it to you.”

Members of the party voted to take a day to read the articles and then consider the issue in an online poll limited to Central Committee members on Friday — a move Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley, criticized as a way for Miller to avoid responsibility.

“If the chair does not have the fortitude to do the right thing and instead wants to pretend that his unilateral appointment requires a vote of the body, then I would say he lacks the fortitude to make that decision,” Thatcher told The Tribune after the vote.

“Until tonight, I had no issue with the chair — my issue was entirely with Mr. Robinson,” he said. “But the fact that the chair refused to allow any comment or any conversation or any discussion shows utter lack of leadership from Mr. Miller.”

Robinson had joined Miller for a wide-ranging hourlong meeting with the paper’s editorial board Monday to discuss where they see the party headed on a number of issues. During that meeting, Robinson said that while many people attribute the high suicide rates in Utah to the culture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or to the state’s high altitude, that may not capture the full story.

“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, stating that he knows people in the community who have had “over 2,000 sex partners.” That, he said, could be at the root of “some of the self-loathing to the point of suicide.”

His comments, published in a Tribune news article Tuesday, sparked backlash from leaders in his party, including Salt Lake County Council Chairwoman Aimee Winder Newton, who quickly denounced his comments on Twitter.

“I am angry that someone who purports to speak for Republicans has made such inappropriate, inaccurate and hurtful comments,” she told The Tribune on Thursday. “This has caused our LGBTQ friends heartache and has been counterproductive in our fight against suicide.”

Thatcher also weighed in on the issue online, tweeting from a family dinner where he was celebrating President Donald Trump’s signing into law last week an order to work toward creating a national three-digit number for a suicide hotline, similar to 911. Thatcher and Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, had pushed unsuccessfully to create such a three-digit line in Utah for years before two of the state’s congressmen picked up and passed the idea on a nationwide scale.

“Mr. Robinson, you do NOT speak for me,” Thatcher wrote. “Bigotry in any form is unacceptable. Disappointing is not a strong enough word.”

The Utah Log Cabin Republican caucus, which acts as the voice of the LGBTQ community within the party, also released a statement on Robinson’s comments about suicide and STD rates.

“Both of these issues deserve to be discussed by as many people as possible, especially policymakers, in order to find real solutions and combat these challenges,” the email reads. “This becomes extremely difficult when comments like these are made on these subjects and reported in a way that suggests any of us believe that underage young men are out at group sex parties, contracting diseases and then committing suicide over that situation.”

In the meeting with The Tribune, Robinson also made statements about the PrEP pill — a daily preventive strategy for those at risk of contracting HIV — that the Salt Lake County Health Department called “wildly inaccurate.”

He implied that the county was giving out the pill for free and was treating members of the LGBTQ community for free after they had unprotected sex like “bunny rabbits” at monthly “sex parties” and contracted STDs because they were unaware that the pill did not prevent them. Later, Robinson said he had 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.

Robinson told The Tribune on Thursday that the response after his comments were published, “both pro and con, show that there is a tremendous need [for dialogue] on these issues within not only the gay community but the straight community and the county as a whole.” He said he will continue to engage with the party and hopes in the future for a more thoughtful conversation about this issue, which he feels The Tribune’s article did not provide.

Miller, the party chairman, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday afternoon. But in an email statement obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune, he said Robinson’s comments were based on the communication director’s conversations with members of the LGBTQ community “and were not necessarily his own views and were not presented as the position of the Salt Lake County Republican Party.”

But in an email Robinson sent to The Tribune on Tuesday morning, after he was notified the paper would be running a story based on his comments, he reaffirmed his stance and included links to studies and facts on STDs, mental health and suicide in support of it.

“I stand by my position that multiple sexual partners leads to increased risk of STD and HIV, which affects one’s mental, physical and financial health, which leads to a higher risk of depression which leads to a higher risk of thoughts of suicide which leads to higher suicide rates,” he said in the email.

Miller said in his statement that members of the party don’t agree that there is “only one cause or solution” to the issue of suicide.

“I apologize on behalf of the Salt Lake County Republican Party for any hurt or discomfort that this mischaracterization has caused,” he said. “The tremendous outcry of both anger and support shows that these conversations are sorely needed.”