In his first two years in office, Republican Gov. Spencer Cox marked Pride Month with declarations that encouraged Utahns to “be more inclusive and accepting of the LGBTQ+ members of our community.” This year, though, the governor’s declaration was noticeably different.
His 2023 Pride Month declaration doesn’t mention the community celebrated during June and excludes any of the words and acronyms associated with LGBTQ+ people or their rights. Instead, it said, “the state of Utah values the uniqueness of all individuals within our communities and recognizes that everyone has a place in our state.”
“Happy #PrideMonth, to all who celebrate!” Cox wrote in a post of the declaration to Twitter. While the governor’s tweet was met with criticism from members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community, it was also flooded with accounts attacking his statement as an “abomination” and a “sin” — a microcosm of pressure he has faced from other conservatives over past support for LGBTQ+ rights.
His identical 2021 and 2022 declarations mentioned “LGBTQ+” a half-dozen times, and declared June “LGBTQ+ Pride Month,” rather than just Pride Month. It also highlighted mental health challenges faced by the community and the importance of providing LGBTQ+ people with access to help.
The governor’s office did not immediately respond to questions about why the declaration changed this year.
Cox has for years marketed himself as a Republican ally to the LGBTQ+ community, and has frequently talked about the need for inclusion in addressing high suicide rates.
While serving as lieutenant governor in 2016, he drew national attention for a speech he gave in support of the community after a massacre at Pulse Nightclub, a gay bar and dance club, that left 49 people dead.
He talked about growing up in rural Utah, and not being kind to high school students who he later found out were gay. Cox apologized for “not treating them with the kindness, dignity and respect — the love — that they deserve,” adding that his “heart has changed” because of the state’s LGBTQ+ community.
“You have been very patient with me as I went through this change,” Cox said. “You even helped me learn the right letters in the alphabet in the right order, even though you keep adding new ones.”
Last year, Cox vetoed a bill that would have banned transgender girls from playing on school sports teams with others of the same gender identity. The Republican-led Legislature came back together to override his veto, and the law is currently on hold has it makes its way through the courts.
His position on policies around LGBTQ+ rights seems to have shifted in recent months, advocates say. Just 10 days after the start of the 2023 legislative session, and one day after it passed, he signed into law a bill that effectively bans transgender health care for minors.
In a live conversation with The Washington Post in February, Cox continued to describe himself as “an ally to the LGBTQ community” while explaining the decision.
“Missing from all of the reporting is that there were actually two bills that would have done this,” Cox told The Post. “One was much more extreme than the one that passed. That bill failed in the Legislature.”
The bill that passed, SB16, implemented a moratorium on gender-affirming care for transgender youth while such treatments were studied instead of an outright ban, like the other bill. But there isn’t a deadline for the study or an end date for the moratorium, making it an effective ban, advocates say.
“I feel like a big, expansive declaration could be very disingenuous, given how much people suffered when he signed SB16,” the Utah Legislature’s only openly LGBTQ+ member, Rep. Sahara Hayes, D-Millcreek, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “At the same time, you know, words and support matter.”
In a statement shared with The Salt Lake Tribune, the head of Utah’s most politically active LGBTQ+ advocacy organization — which has in recent years tried to work with Cox in finding common ground with conservatives on issues that impact the community — said it supports the governor’s overall message.
“As we kick off Pride month in Utah, Equality Utah acknowledges and agrees with the sentiments expressed in Spencer Cox’s PRIDE declaration, that we should all strive to love, respect and treat one another with kindness and dignity, regardless of any labels we each may wear,” Equality Utah executive director Troy Williams wrote. “This is the true meaning and purpose behind the celebrations this weekend and throughout June.”
The Utah Pride Center, meanwhile, lambasted the governor for his changed declaration.
“Not including the letters and words that identify the Pride Community — LGBTQIA+ — is an irresponsible coward act of erasure,” the organization wrote, replying to Cox’s tweet. “We believe Gov. Cox can do better.”