At historic forum, Utah’s GOP gubernatorial candidates vow LGBTQ residents will have a place at the table under new administration

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams talks about legislation being introduced at the Utah Capitol to ban conversion therapy on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. On Thursday, Equality Utah hosted a forum with all four Republican candidates for governor to talk about issues impacting the state’s LGBTQ community.

Editor’s note: This story discusses suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.

In what it’s calling a historic first, Equality Utah hosted a forum with all four Republican candidates for governor to talk about issues impacting the state’s LGBTQ community.

The advocacy group says the event — which was pre-recorded for release Thursday night — is special not only in Utah, but for right-leaning states across the nation.

“Ten years ago, even five years ago, we would never have seen a moment when Republican candidates vying to become governor would join a forum hosted by Equality Utah,” said Troy Williams, Equality Utah’s executive director, during the forum. “But the world is changing, and in red states, Utah is leading the way.”

Each of the Republican contenders — Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Gov. Jon Huntsman, former House Speaker Greg Hughes and former state GOP chairman Thomas Wright — have helped “move the state forward on LGBTQ issues,” Equality Utah said in a news release announcing the event.

For example, Huntsman advocated for civil unions and anti-discrimination protections ahead of much of the rest of his party, the release stated. Cox has worked on suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth, while Hughes helped shepherd Utah’s nondiscrimination law through the Legislature five years ago. Wright also promoted the inclusion of LGBTQ Utahns in the GOP during his time as party chairman, according to the release.

During the forum, Williams spoke with each candidate in turn for about 20 minutes on issues ranging from the state’s high suicide rates to leadership gaps facing women and minorities to their own personal journeys understanding the LGBTQ community — all in an effort, he said, to build bridges and find common ground with a party the group has often clashed with.

The fact that Equality Utah drew all four of the Republican candidates demonstrates that LGBTQ advocates are an integral part of the state's political dialogue.

“In the past, legislation could be drafted impacting our community without our involvement,” Williams said in an interview. “But that’s really changed over the past five years.”

Over that time period, lawmakers and advocates united in support of a landmark nondiscrimination law and rallied around last year’s hate crimes legislation. Equality Utah and other advocates also worked with Gov. Gary Herbert to enact a ban on so-called conversion therapy for children.

During Thursday’s event, each of the four candidates promised that the LGBTQ community would maintain its seat at the table under his new gubernatorial administration. The candidates also said they would be willing to sit down with members of the transgender community, whom Williams said are often misunderstood, if elected.

Suicide solutions?

In 2019, suicide was the seventh leading cause of death in the Beehive State. Research produced that same year by the nonprofit Mental Health America showed Utah ranked No. 50 in a national analysis that measured each state’s rate of mental illness and access to mental health care for adults.

While there’s no data on the number of suicides specifically within the LGBTQ community, it’s thought that they’re at uniquely higher risk than the population at large.

During the forum Thursday, Cox said there have been a number of successes on the mental health front over the past few years, with lawmakers passing more bills addressing the topic “than probably the history of the state combined.” There have also been “real dollars” put toward prevention, including through the state’s SafeUT app, a statewide service that provides real-time crisis intervention to youth through texting.

But there’s still a long way to go, he said. And “changing the culture around these issues is going to do more than anything else."

“I’ve often said the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, the opposite of addiction is connection. The same thing is true with mental health issues,” Cox added, noting that the LGBTQ community needs to feel welcome and like they have a place in the state.

Wright, a Utah businessman, said his administration would “declare war on mental health in the state of Utah."

While the pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues for many, the candidate said it may also provide a “real opportunity." Statistics show that since mid-March, more than 180,000 Utahns have filed for unemployment — displaced workers he said may be interested in training as health care workers.

“We need to make sure people can get help,” he said. “There is nothing wrong with having mental illness. Nobody chooses it.”

Hughes said he doesn’t personally understand the underlying causes of the state’s suicide rates and wants to dive deeper into the data to see what public policymakers could do to prevent it.

“I think years ago I would have said you’ve got to toughen up; if you’re going through this it’s because you don’t have enough to worry about," he said. "I had these ideas in my head that it was maybe [the result of] a society that’s too soft or too affluent. I know that’s wrong. But what it is, if it’s technology, if it’s these social issues that kids are grappling with, I don’t know the answers.”

Whatever the underlying causes might be, Hughes said he would work seriously to address suicide and mental health challenges in the state under his leadership.

Williams didn’t ask Huntsman about mental health during their one-on-one conversation, but the candidate says on his website that the state “has had a collective failure when it comes to mental health.”

He promised to provide “bold leadership” on the issue, if elected, “that will bring the best practices to the forefront and use the convening power of the governor’s office to bring people together to address this crisis in our families and communities.

“As a state, it is time to make sure those who suffer know they are not in this alone and that we are eager to help them get the care they need,” he concluded.

The ‘elephant in the room’

While the majority of his conversations with candidates remained light, Williams engaged in a few more pointed exchanges as well.

One of those came when Hughes spoke about the need to push back against bullies as a way to help people who feel marginalized in a hyperpolarized climate — whether that be refugees or people of faith, as Williams put it.

“What if the bully is in the White House?” Williams asked in response. “... Because for a lot of us, that’s what it feels like.”

“I’ll tell you that my experience has been opposite of that,” Hughes responded. “I think there’s been some things for the little guy and gal that might feel like they’re on the outside looking in that this president has defended.”

Each of the Republican candidates for governor has expressed their support for President Donald Trump.

Williams also addressed the “elephant in the room” with Wright, whose pick for lieutenant governor, Congressman Rob Bishop, has a 0% rating on LGBTQ issues on the Human Rights Campaign’s congressional score card, along with the rest of the state’s congressional delegation.

“If you win, there’s going to be a lot of LGBTQ Utahns who are going to be really, really suspicious that they perhaps won’t be welcome in your administration,” Williams said.

Wright said those questions are fair game and that Bishop should be asked them directly. But the candidate also noted that he’s the one running for governor and pointed to his own track record on these issues.

“You know where I stand and you know how strong I am on these issues of equality and making sure we see eye to eye and that we’re working together,” he said. “Your viewers and your members can be confident that Gov. Wright is going to be who he’s always been.”

Wright promised to secure a one-on-one meeting with Williams and Bishop to talk about LGBTQ issues, if he’s elected.

To end each of their conversations, Williams posed three rapid-fire questions asking each candidate’s take on gay pop culture icons and media and posing true or false statements around Utah statistics related to the LGBTQ community.

Cox said his favorite “gay TV show,” as Williams put it, is “Modern Family.” Huntsman couldn’t name or give a one-sentence review of the last Broadway show he saw but said he enjoys watching Utah resident Tan France on “Queer Eye.” And Thomas Wright said he’d be willing to appear on an episode of Real Housewives of Salt Lake City if he had “the right role.”

Williams asked Hughes who his “favorite gay man crush” would be between former Utah Sen. Jim Dabakis or Joe Exotic of “Tiger King.”

“I’m still a little homophobic; I’m still a little old school here,” Hughes responded.

He ultimately reframed the question as who he admires the most, noting that while he “could not be more amused” by the gun-toting tiger owner from the new Netflix miniseries, he had to go with Dabakis.

“He’s my pal,” Hughes said. “We’ve had so much fun working on issues together. We fight when it’s time to fight on issues, but it’s never personal.”

Editor’s note • Jon Huntsman is a brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.