Devin Wiser: I honor my dual pioneer heritage, LDS and LGBT

Each group carried significant burdens so I might have a better life.

(Tribune File Photo) Supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community hold up signs during a protest in Salt Lake City, Oct. 7, 2010.

I’m fortunate to come from two types of pioneer stock. On the one side are my Mormon pioneer ancestors, who sacrificed to worship how they wanted and, on the other, my gay predecessors, who fought for equal rights. Each group carried significant burdens so I might have a better life, and I owe a major debt of gratitude to both of them.

I would wager that most readers of this publication are at least somewhat familiar with the history of the Mormon pioneers. They left a place they called home (several times, as a matter of fact) due to bigotry and religious persecution. They then journeyed across the country before it was easy, sacrificing many things, including, far too often, their lives. That certainly wasn’t the end of their trials. When they finally reached the Mountain West, in many ways they had to start their lives from scratch, but together they built communities that survived and thrived, despite the harsh conditions.

What they endured and accomplished is truly incredible. I am particularly grateful to my own pioneer ancestors, including Martha McKinney Frost, who bravely crossed the plains with her husband and young children, only to have her husband die shortly after their arrival in the Salt Lake Valley. He was the first man to be buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery. They struggled so I could grow up in a loving home and strong community in what I consider to be the best state in the Union. We must never forget their sacrifices and fight to preserve religious freedom, so religious discrimination has no place in our society.

As a gay man, of equal importance to me is the pioneering sacrifice made by gay individuals and our allies across the world. It pains me to think of the centuries of suffering many experienced due to a different, but no less foul, type of bigotry and persecution. Due to the efforts of these pioneers, I get to live in a society that has become far more accepting.

It’s possible that stories of persecution of the gay community are somewhat less familiar to the readers of this publication, but I challenge you to seek them out. Whether it be the history of the Stonewall Riots, learning about prisoners with pink triangles in Nazi concentration camps, or even researching the added difficulties gay individuals have struggled with for decades in business and personal matters. In these histories are true heroes, who are absolutely pioneers in their own right. Without them, I can’t imagine how my life would have turned out, or even (I’m ashamed to say, but it’s important that I do) if I would have opted to live.

Room for improvement exists, both locally and abroad. There are countries (I’ve even traveled to some and called out their officials) where it is still illegal to be gay and punishable by death. I am proud of our country’s recent national leaders, including President Trump and President Biden, who have worked diligently to change that across the world. In Utah, great strides have been made at the policy level to end mistreatment of gay people, but there is still room for improvement, especially at the individual level.

Before you make an insensitive comment, share a stigmatizing post on social media, or lump all gay people into one stereotypical box, please stop and remember the pioneers who sacrificed for equality. As a gay Republican, that last offense really hits home. I believe we shouldn’t focus so much on what people are, but on who they are and what they believe. Identity politics is far too rampant and too easy of a trap to fall into.

Also, consider those — especially our youth — who may be listening and suffering at the pain your actions may cause, even if you do so unknowingly. There is a reason suicide rates in the gay community remain so much higher, and that needs to end. Frankly, that is one of the reasons I’m writing this today; if even one young gay person can look to me and see the simple fact that it’s just as good to be gay as it is to be straight, then mission accomplished.

As we look ahead to the July 24 Pioneer Day celebrations in Utah, let’s, of course, be grateful and honor the Mormon pioneers, who sacrificed so we could enjoy so much. But as we recently wrapped up the month of June, when so many commemorate gay Pride, please don’t forget about those pioneers who fought so hard for equal treatment.

Let’s honor their legacy by being more loving to all people, no matter who they love. It matters and could save lives.

(Benjamin Zack | Weber State University) Devin Wiser is the Executive Director of Government Relations and Director of the Olene S. Walker Institute.

Devin Wiser worked for 10 years on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in various capacities, including as deputy chief counsel for a committee in the House of Representatives and as chief of staff to a senior Republican member of Congress. He is currently executive director of government relations and executive director of the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University.