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GOP lawmaker announces he's gay; criticizes bill barring sexual orientation discussion

In Region

5:09 pm on Wed, 05.02.12

State Rep. Zach Wyatt’s hands were shaking a little when he made a statement against legislation restricting discussion of sexual orientation in public schools. But that may have had more to do with his caffeine intake than his announcement that he is gay.

“That comes from actually probably too much coffee in the morning,” Wyatt, R-Green Castle, said in a telephone interview. “There were some nerves. I don’t want to say that there were no nerves. Heck, there are still nerves right now because you guys are lighting up my telephone call sheet.”

But, he added, “After I was done, it was kind of like a weight had been lifted off my chest.”

Zach Wyatt
Zach Wyatt

Wyatt’s phone lines became a little busier Wednesday after he announced that he's gay at a  press conference calling for state Rep. Steve Cookson’s legislation to be withdrawn. He asked opponents of the bill to stand with him asa proud Republican, a proud veteran and a proud gay man who wants to protect all kids addressing bullying in our schools.”

Wyatt – who is leaving the General Assembly to study marine biology in Hawaii – had already released a scathing statement last week attacking the legislation. But he said he needed to take things a step further.

“Within my party there needed to be a discussion that there are members within the Republican Party who are gay,” Wyatt said. “This bill would hurt young (people) in schools throughout the state of Missouri if they wanted to be part of the gay-straight alliance. (Republicans) need to realize the Republican Party has gay members and we need to make sure we accept them as well.”

Cookson’s legislation – co-sponsored by several members of Republican leadership – states that “no instruction, material, or extracurricular activity sponsored by a public school that discusses sexual orientation other than in scientific instruction concerning human reproduction shall be provided in any public school.”

Since the bill was referred to committee, the bill sparked an intense backlash from education groups, gay rights organizations and primarily Democratic legislators. The bill was also lampooned on the Colbert Report, a satirical news program on Comedy Central. Rep. Scott Dieckhaus, R-Washington, told the Beacon last week that he will not hold a hearing on the bill.

Cookson did not return a phone call to the Beacon seeking comment. But he told the Kansas City Star that he had no plans to shelve the legislation.

In a statement last week, Cookson said, “In a time when our public schools continue to struggle financially, we want their focus to be solely on core education issues such as math, science and reading and not on topics that are better left for discussion in the home at the discretion of parents.”

In regards to gay-straight alliances being banned under the bill, Cookson told the SEMO Times earlier this week that “we cross the line, being school sponsored, then we also may be taking on too much of the parental responsibilities there.”

'I choked up'

Wyatt joins state Reps. Jeanette Mott Oxford, D-St. Louis, Mike Colona, D-St. Louis, and state Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, as openly gay members of the Missouri Legislature. Unlike those lawmakers, Wyatt hails from a rural area, and three counties he represents overwhelmingly voted to approve a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in 2004. 

Rep. Zach Wyatt speaks out against HB 2051 in this video shot by Progress Missouri.

“It wasn’t until probably January of this year that I had really come to the conclusion myself,” said Wyatt, when asked whether he ever considered coming out in 2010 while he was campaigning in the predominantly rural district. “I knew that I was in a way … still lying to myself to try to be like ‘no, no, no – let’s just see’ and all that stuff. But then I will tell you that after I was able to slow down a little bit during the holiday season, I was able to look back at my life and look at things. And it became more clear that I was gay and I needed to be myself.”

Oxford and Colona both stood behind Wyatt as he made his statement. In a telephone interview, Oxford said the moment was emotional.

“I don’t know if it shows up in the video or not, but I got real choked up when he said the words that he was a proud gay man,” Oxford said. “I’m choking up telling you. It just really takes a lot of courage given all the heat that many people take for people to say those words loud in front of cameras. I personally know that it does take a certain amount of courage to be willing to walk through your fears when that might happen.”

Oxford said she experienced trepidation in 1980s when she came out to the media during an effort to become an ordained minister.

“I literally was frightened that there might be some kind of violence against me because of it being in the papers,” Oxford said. “So it does take some courage.”

Cookson’s bill is disheartening, she said, because some of its cosponsors “seem to relate to me in a way that would imply friendship and many of them have spoken words of admiration to me about various things that I’ve done.”

So, Oxford added, “For them to sponsor this bill that would be harmful to the climate in our schools knowing what we do about bullying (students because) of their sexual orientation or their perceived sexual orientation is just a real shame to me. Oxford said she plans to write some of the cosponsors of the bill.

So far, Wyatt said, he’s received a “tremendous” response from legislators in both political parties. In addition to Oxford and Colona, state Reps. Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights, Chris Carter, D-St. Louis, Anne Zerr, R-St. Charles, Donna Lichtenegger, R-Jackson, and Noel Torpey, R-Jackson County, were present when he made his statement.

“People on both sides of the aisle said they don’t know if they’d have the courage to do what I did,” Wyatt said.

Newman, who also spoke at the press conference, will be present tomorrow morning at an event in front of Clayton High School condemning the legislation. 

Moving on?

PROMO – an organization that advocates for LGBT rights in the state – tweeted this morning that Wyatt is the only Republican state legislator in the country who is openly gay. And Wyatt said he hopes that his announcements spur more gay members within his party to come forward.

Jeanette Mott Oxford
Jeanette Mott Oxford

Oxford said that the state has a long way go from a policy perspective, including passing bills that protect students from bullying and bar workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. While Oxford said the gay rights movement has moved more quickly than other civil rights struggles, she added that may not be much comfort to a child getting stuffed in a trash can, pushed down stairs or being sent hateful text messages.

“Saying ‘compared to these other rights movements, we’re moving at sort of a blinding rate of speed’ isn’t just a lot of comfort to that teenager,” said Oxford, who is running for the 5th District Senate seat. “I hope we do get to the day where it’s just sort of an aside. Maybe in the press release about me being elected to some leadership position in the future ... it’ll mention that Jeanette and her partner Dorothy live in Benton Park. … And it won’t be a big doggone deal about it.”

Wyatt, 27, said Republican opposition to gay rights issues may soften in time. He said that he went to a Young Republicans convention recently and found people there more receptive to gay rights. And while he said there’s still some progress to be made, he added there may come a point where sexual orientation isn’t a defining characteristic in politics.

“I’ve gotten questions: ‘Well, why are you a Republican when Republicans don’t like you or something?’” Wyatt said. “I’ve gotten those questions. I’ll tell you, I still believe in smaller government, less taxes. I’m still that fiscal conservative. And I still vote very, very conservative. I’m still pro-life. I’m still the same person that I was when I woke up this morning.

“I hope in the future that it just becomes ‘well, that’s fine – whatever,’” he added. “And then they go on.”

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