Benjamin • Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie gets choked up as he talks about growing up around horses.
High school was “awkward," he says, navigating traditional social pressures despite being attracted to men. But his time feeding and riding the animals was something akin to therapy, he says, since horses are good listeners and never talk back.
“These guys have always been my salvation,” Ivie says.
It’s been less than two weeks since Ivie publicly disclosed that he is gay, generating local and national headlines and adding his name to the handful of elected LGBTQ Utahns while also becoming the first openly gay Republican to hold partisan office in state history.
And while he walked through his 30-acre ranch in Utah County on Thursday — followed closely by his daughter, McKylie, his dogs and two of his roughly 50 horses — he says he has no regrets about posting his announcement video, but acknowledges being surprised by the volume of the response.
“I guess I knew that part of it would be unique, especially coming from Utah and Utah County,” Ivie said. “We’re kind of the reddest county in a very, very predominately red state.”
Elected commissioner in 2016, Ivie is rapidly approaching the end of his first term. And while the prospects of his reelection are complicated by a potential shift in Utah County’s form of government, Ivie says he has no fear of facing the voters as an openly gay candidate for county commissioner, councilman, mayor or even as a potential congressional challenger to Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams.
“We’re looking at all of those,” Ivie said. “I’m going to serve my community where I feel I can serve the best.”
As red as it gets
Utah County is overwhelmingly Republican and, as the state’s second-largest county, functions as a stronghold for conservative politics in the state.
The platform for the state Republican Party lauds the traditional family as the “fundamental unit of society.” But the Utah County party’s platform goes considerably further in opposing LGBTQ rights, defining marriage as the legal union of a man and woman and stating that “no other domestic union should be recognized as a marriage or given the same or substantially equal legal effect.”
In the same section, the county platform explicitly opposes “efforts to include sexual orientation as a protected minority” — despite such protections already being established in state law by Utah’s Republican-dominated Legislature.
The county platform was last updated in 2011, before the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was struck down in court and before lawmakers enacted anti-discrimination and hate crimes protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.
Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, said the question of Ivie’s sexuality may have had more impact in the Utah County of two decades ago, but the steady inflow of new residents from outside the state has changed the political landscape.
“I’d like to think that those types of things don’t matter anymore,” Anderegg said, “but maybe they do to some people — I don’t know.”
And while he doesn’t know if Utah County is to the point where an openly gay candidate is a nonissue, Anderegg added that Ivie has proven himself as a good man.
“I’d love to see him win reelection when he’s ready and it’s time,” Anderegg said. “He’s always been very levelheaded.”
On social media after Ivie’s announcement, many Republican officeholders expressed their support while the reaction from party members ranged from encouragement to indifference to criticism. On an informal Utah GOP discussion group on Facebook, some commenters accused Ivie of using his sexuality as a publicity stunt, while others — including a former party officer — called for his resignation or speculated he would begin to advocate a progressive agenda.
Stewart Peay, the newly elected chairman of the Utah County Republican Party, said Ivie has done a good job as commissioner, and that there’s nothing about the disclosure of his sexual orientation that would necessitate resignation from office or removal from the party.
“I don’t believe that just being gay or being a member of the LGBTQ community puts you in conflict with the platform,” Peay said.
Gayle Ruzicka, president of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, said Ivie is always welcome in the Republican Party and that voters will look at his record as commissioner in deciding whether to support him in the future.
But she objected to Ivie making public what would otherwise be a private matter, and said it was “astounding” and “very upsetting” to see so many people respond positively to what she described as a man breaking his commitments to his family.
“Just because he left them for other men does not make it a brave thing to do any more than if he left them for another woman,” Ruzicka said, later adding that “adultery is adultery.”
In his announcement video, Ivie stated that he and his wife had decided to end their marriage and “move forward as a different kind of family,” but did not otherwise address his personal or romantic life. Asked by The Salt Lake Tribune if he intends to date, Ivie declined to comment.
“There are small aspects of my life I’d like to keep as my own,” he said. “I live a public enough life as it is.”
Ivie acknowledged the pushback against his decision to make a public, headline-grabbing statement about his sexuality, and that a part of him agrees with the criticism.
But he reiterated that his motivation was to offer assurance and validation to other LGBTQ individuals who might be considering self-harm — as he did in his 20s.
“We’re still losing our youth — and even people my age — to suicide in this state at a significantly higher rate than the rest of the nation,” he said. “When you add in the sexuality factor, it’s ridiculous. It’s off the charts.”
Ivie referred to LGBTQ individuals who inspire him — a horse client and her wife, a same-sex couple who hired him as their photographer, even Democratic presidential candidate “Mayor Pete” Buttigieg — by living their lives sincerely and authentically, and said he’d hope to be the same kind of person or couple, “if the opportunity affords it.”
“They’re not defined by their sexuality,” he said. “They’re defined by the content of their character.”
Conservative, then and now
Ivie is also adamant that his conservative politics have not changed. On the topic of hate crimes legislation, he said government should be cautious about creating special classes of people and should instead focus on individual rights.
On same-sex marriage, he said government should be largely out of the equation, deferring instead to religious and cultural institutions.
“If we want to have a contract to file our taxes jointly, then let’s have a policy discussion that’s equal,” he said. “To me, that means if you’ve got two sisters who are widowed living together, why shouldn’t they have the advantage of filing jointly?”
But he was also clear in his opposition to conversion therapy — a widely discredited practice claiming to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity — saying he was “really, really, really, really, really disappointed” the Utah Legislature failed to impose a ban earlier this year.
“The greatest decision I ever made in my life was when I researched therapy [and decided] not to go,” Ivie said. “It kills people. It is not good in any shape or form.”
Highland Republican Rep. Brady Brammer — who was a key figure in this year’s debate over conversion therapy — said Utah County is always ready for a commissioner who is a thoughtful and effective public servant. And Ivie, Brammer said, is such a person.
“My sense is that Utah County was supportive before the announcement," Brammer said, “and will continue to be supportive regardless of [his] sexual orientation.”
Troy Williams, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy organization Equality Utah, was also optimistic about Utah being accepting of an openly gay Republican.
Williams said his counterparts in other conservative states struggle to work with their elected leaders, but he credited the Utah Legislature, governor and Republican voters with being open to dialogue and support on issues affecting the LGBTQ communities.
“We have work still to do to challenge misperceptions, stereotypes and biases," Williams said. “We believe, and are confident, that over time the Republican platform will expand its tent to include LGBTQ Utahns.”
Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, the state’s only openly gay legislator, said it takes courage to come out as gay in the middle of an elected term. Things are changing and the state is diversifying, Kitchen said, but intolerance remains, like an incident earlier this year when a pride flag was vandalized at the restaurant Kitchen owns with his husband.
Kitchen said he would encourage Ivie to not be shy about his experience.
“Other members of the [Republican] party and his community need to know," Kitchen said, “that there’s gay people that live among them and work among them and conduct policy matters among them.”
In the days since his announcement, Ivie estimates that he’s received 1,000 personal messages from people around the world. Most have offered support, he said, while there have been criticisms from both the political right and the political left.
But he added that he expected his friends to remain his friends, and that has proved to be “100 percent” true.
“The people who matter to me," Ivie said, “don’t care.”