REPORT: Gay Republican ponders party’s push for religious liberty legislation

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A view of the south side of the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City (Zachary Reger)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Information for this story was gathered from interviews conducted throughout the Missouri General Assembly’s 2016 legislative session, which ran from January to mid-May.


JEFFERSON CITY — Zachary Wyatt-Gomez, 31, a former Missouri representative and openly gay Republican, is an ideological harbinger—a man whose own life story mirrors the morphing philosophy of his seemingly fractured party.

But Wyatt’s experience also highlights a growing divide within the GOP, an uneasy coalition straining to establish some form of consensus between its business-minded and socially conservative wings.

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Zachary Wyatt-Gomez

It’s a divide that served as tinder for this spring’s religious liberty showdown in the Missouri General Assembly.

Senate Joint Resolution 39, a Republican-sponsored religious liberty constitutional amendment, was first presented as a way to protect the socially conservative beliefs and practices of ordinary citizens from overbearing government oversight.

Opponents argued the resolution would legalize discrimination.

Specifically, SJR 39 would have allowed some wedding-related businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples based on a “sincere religious belief.”

After passing the state Senate, the resolution was defeated in a House committee on April 27.

SJR 39 needed a simple majority to pass the committee and continue its journey to the House floor. The vote was 6-6.

If passed by the legislature, the proposed amendment would still have required a statewide public referendum before becoming an official part of the Missouri Constitution.

Missouri Democrats, a minority in both divisions of the state legislature, staged a filibuster of the resolution in early March. The maneuver lasted several days, leaving the Senate in session for a record-setting 37 hours.

The effort was ultimately in vain. After three days, the resolution passed.

On April 12, SJR 39 had its first public hearing in the House of Representatives. Opponents and supporters spoke before the Committee on Emerging Issues, swapping testimony late into the night. The hearing lasted over 4 hours.

The resolution was defeated when, weeks later, the same committee failed to garner a majority of supporting votes. Passage through the committee would have allowed the measure to continue its journey to the House floor for debate and a full vote.

Out of the twelve committee members, six Republicans voted in favor, with three Democrats and three Republicans voting against.

The three opposing Republican votes—from Rep. Caleb Rowden of Columbia, Rep. Anne Zerr of St. Charles and Rep. Jim Hansen of Frankford—were crucial in SJR 39’s final defeat.

For Rowden, SJR 39 was poorly written, possibly leading to unintended consequences. Because of this, it would have been inappropriate for the legislature to place on a statewide ballot, he said.

Zerr agreed with Rowden’s analysis, also adding that SJR 39 would have been harmful to the state’s economy due to the large number of businesses who had voiced their opposition to the resolution.

Many large corporations, such as Monsanto, H&R Block and U.S. Bank, had publicly announced their derision of SJR 39. So had the Missouri Chamber of Commerce.

Hansen, however, had a different reason. He felt the bill was attempting to play God. To him, SJR 39 seemed much too similar to the racial segregation laws of his childhood.

“Some people might say this is totally different,” he said. “I think it’s a little bit of going down that same road.”

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Rep. Jim Hansen, a religious Republican, comes out against SJR 39 during a committee meeting in the Missouri Capitol on April 27. Hansen, opposing his own party, agreed with opponents of the resolution that SJR 39 would be discriminatory. (Zachary Reger)

Stories such as this aren’t unique to Missouri. 

North Carolina is being sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for its controversial “bathroom bill,” a religious liberty law that prevents transgender residents from using the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity, according to reporting from the Associated Press.

This year, Georgia defeated its own religious liberty proposal. On March 28, the state’s Republican governor announced his veto of the bill.

In early April, Mississippi passed a law granting protection to wedding-related businesses who want to refuse service to gay customers.

These events echo last spring, when another Republican-backed religious liberty-esque bill in Indiana, actually signed into law, was effectively nullified via an additional bill following mass criticism and economic withdrawal from major companies in the state.

All four of the above proposals were—and still are—opposed by a large swath of corporate entities. This has triggered mixed feelings for many business-friendly conservatives.

Add to this an already contentious Republican presidential primary season in which party populism, propelling the now-presumptive nominee Donald Trump, overcame harsh opposition from social conservatives like Ted Cruz and traditional party faithfuls such as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and John Kasich.

As the Republican in-fighting continues, the party must contend with another worry: Potential voters in valued demographics may be put-off by the illiberal stance of these religious liberty proposals.

Young people are generally more liberal than their parents, according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center. Due to this, the left-leaning Democratic Party holds a disproportionate amount of support from young voters nationally, according to a separate study by Gallup.

Another Gallup poll shows that Democrats also maintain a clear advantage among non-white and minority voters nationally.

Following the 2012 presidential election, in which Republican nominee Mitt Romney won a majority of the white vote but lost the election overall, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus convened an independent review of the party in the form of a panel called the “Growth and Opportunity Project.”

Some jokingly referred to it as the Republican Party autopsy.

In its report back, the panel recommended that Republican leaders, in order to appeal to a broader range of potential voters, consider altering some traditional party stances for more moderate appeal. The panel specifically recommended embracing comprehensive immigration reform, as well as taking up positions on other social issues that were “welcoming and inclusive.”

In order for the party to stay viable, the report encouraged Republicans to court more non-white and non-evangelical voters. This could be accomplished through softer stances on social policy, while still retaining conservative fiscal values.

Enter Zachary Wyatt-Gomez.

In May of 2012, then-state Representative Zachary Wyatt, as he was known then, held a press conference in the Missouri Capitol to protest the Republican-backed “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would have barred discussion of sexual orientation in public schools. Opponents believed it could have possibly outlawed school meetings of groups like the Gay-Straight Alliance, according to previous reporting by the Associated Press.

To the surprise of many in attendance, Wyatt revealed his true sexual orientation, becoming, at the time, the country’s only openly gay Republican lawmaker at the state or national level.

After the announcement, Wyatt became an instant icon, his story rapidly disseminated across mass media. Lawrence O’Donnell interviewed Wyatt on MSNBC. The Huffington Post shared more than a few related articles. Comedian Stephen Colbert even mocked “Don’t Say Gay” on an episode of The Colbert Report. Outlets statewide also ran with the news, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Kansas City Star, KMOV, KWMU, KMOX, KTVO, KRCG, KMIZ, KOMU, the Kirksville Daily Express, the Columbia Daily Tribune and, yes, the Columbia Missourian.

Throughout this newfound attention, Wyatt stayed true to his somewhat extreme conservative ideology, which he never saw as being at odds with his sexual orientation. 

In some ways, he’s a man on the fringes of his own party. In others, he may be on the forefront.


Republican first, gay man second

Zachary Wyatt spent most of his childhood in Novinger, a northeast Missouri town of only a few hundred people.

His interest in politics started young, stemming all the way back to the third grade. That year, he volunteered on then-state Rep. Bob Behnen’s re-election campaign.

“That was where I got my passion for politics really early,” Wyatt said. “I always joked with Bob when I was younger that I wanted to be him when I grew up.”

This passion continued through high school, when Wyatt was given the opportunity to meet with former U.S. Senator from Missouri Kit Bond and then-Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft. 

Wyatt graduated in 2003, leaving Novinger to enlist in the U.S. Air Force. He served for six and a half years as an interpreter, being fluent in Russian, Chechen, Georgian and Ukrainian.

Wyatt returned home for Christmas in 2009, around which time he reunited with Behnen, working to form a campaign strategy for his first run at public office. Wyatt officially filed his campaign for state representative in February, reaching out to other important Missouri Republicans from within and outside the House Republican Caucus, such as Thom Van Vleck, who had previously run, unsuccessfully, for the same position.

Throughout the summer, Wyatt worked on getting people to know who he was. He staged an extensive “ground force” campaign, knocking on doors nearly every day and attending public events throughout the district, he said. 

Wyatt’s campaign supporters were all volunteers, he said, adding that he drew support from many younger voters attending Truman State University, a liberal arts school in nearby Kirksville.

“They wanted to see someone younger, and in many ways a new perspective, come in to office,” Wyatt said.

He ran a successful campaign in part because he was able to tap into this new movement among young conservatives, said Van Vleck, who served as a mentor for Wyatt.

“He saw a shift coming that I think is now gaining traction,” Van Vleck said, explaining that many young Republicans are leading a push to emphasize fiscal conservatism over right-wing social policies.

Facing Rebecca McClanahan, a two-term incumbent Democrat, Wyatt won over sixty percent of the vote, becoming the next representative of what was then House district two—all of Putnam and Adair counties as well as half of Sullivan. 

As a Missouri Republican, Wyatt’s first two-year term would also be his last.

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The House Committee on Emerging Issues discusses a controversial “religious liberty” proposal during a meeting in the Missouri Capitol on April 27. At the meeting, three dissenting Republicans triggered a split vote of 6-6, effectively defeating the measure and preventing it from continuing its journey to the House floor. (Zachary Reger)

Wyatt took office in January 2011 at the age of 26. The first few months were a whirlwind, a period of his life he described as “eye-opening.” Wyatt was bombarded with information, likening the influx to that of a firehose on full-force. 

“It was probably one of the most interesting times I’ve ever had,” Wyatt said. “I had traveled around the world, but politics is completely different.”

For beating a Democratic incumbent, the freshman representative was rewarded with a position as vice chairman of the House Committee on Rural Economic Development.

He went on to sponsor several successful bills, including one on student concussion awareness, which was supported by the St. Louis Rams and the National Football League.

Toward the end of Wyatt’s second year in office, Rep. Steve Cookson, a Republican, put forth a new education bill, House Bill 2051, which would hinder school administrators’ ability to discuss matters of human sexuality with students. Opponents called it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

“If a student came forward as being a homosexual, that bill would have prohibited them from being able to actually talk to students about things in regards to being gay,” Wyatt said. 

The bill caught Wyatt’s eye as soon as it was presented. He remembered being on the end of snide comments himself about being gay both in school and in the Air Force, which reinforced his view that students should be able to reach out when they need help, even if it was for something that wasn’t strictly education-related.

“I didn’t want kids to have to go through the same thing that I had to go through,” Wyatt said. “I wanted them to have a more open dialogue with educators and with people whom they should be able to trust.”

Wyatt came out against the bill in April 2012. In May, he came out as an openly gay man—who just happened to be a Republican.

The bill died shortly thereafter; the real story was Wyatt.

“It kind of set off a media firestorm,” Wyatt said. “Little to my knowledge, I was going to be the only openly gay Republican serving in the United States.”

Everyone wanted a “piece of the pie,” he said. Some pressured him to criticize his own party. Instead, Wyatt chose tolerance.

“They have their beliefs and I have mine,” he said, speaking about other Republicans. “We can disagree on some things but we agree on a majority of things.”

To this day, Wyatt says he thinks of himself as a Republican first, a gay man second. 

“Being gay is not something that defines me as a person,” Wyatt said, sharing his belief that anti-homosexual speech is something Republicans sometimes employ just to bring their base to the polls. 

It’s a misconception of many Republicans to say that the party doesn’t support same-sex marriage, he said.

“As we have seen in recent polls, a lot of people do support same-sex marriage,” Wyatt said of Republicans. 

He’s partially correct. In 2015, the Pew Research Center reported that 32 percent of Republicans said they favored same-sex marriage, which was an increase from 21 percent in 2001. This was substantially lower than Democrats who favored same-sex marriage, however, which was at 66 percent in 2015 and 43 percent in 2001.

The Republican Party may be slowly coming around to the idea of marriage equality, Wyatt said, even if it doesn’t appear so by looking at this year’s batch of Republican presidential candidates. 

“We have many openly gay Republicans in the party,” Wyatt said. “I even tried to help a few of them get elected into office.”

During his last year in office, Wyatt said he traveled across the country to help openly gay and pro-marriage equality Republicans in their elections. He traveled to Massachusetts to help Richard Tisei and to San Diego to aid Carl DeMaio, two other openly gay Republicans, although neither were in office at the time Wyatt came out.

Wyatt joked that he must have looked like a right-wing nut job while campaigning for Tisei in Massachusetts. Unlike himself, many Republicans in the northeast are pro-choice and pro-gun control, he said.

However, appearances can be deceiving.

“I think that the people out there making a lot of noise on the far right and wanting religious liberties and stuff like that to happen, I don’t think they understand what a true conservative is,” Wyatt said.

We already have a religious liberty law, and it’s called the First Amendment, he said. 

“As a conservative, we do not need more law to be put into the books when we already have laws that address that,” Wyatt said, referring to Republicans’ various pushes for religious liberty in other states.

A true conservative, according to him, refrains from superfluous codification and is fiscally responsible, making sure that government is efficient for the people. As an example, he points to what he views as the federal government’s out of control military spending, which he believes should be reined in.

It’s a sentiment that differentiates him from many of his fellow Republicans. And it perfectly highlights the true root of Wyatt-conservatism: Men are born free, and a restrained government will keep it so.

“When you’re saying one thing and doing another, there’s a problem,” Wyatt said, criticizing what he views as the internally inconsistent ideologies of some conservative Republicans.

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Supporters and opponents of SJR 39 gather in preparation for a committee vote on April 27 in the Missouri Capitol. As the House committee debated the merits of the ill-fated resolution, various stakeholders, lawmakers and members of the press filled the room, spilling out the doors of the cramped quarters. (Zachary Reger)

Move on

There’s a long-argued philosophical divide among western legal analysts: Should a democratic society’s first goal be to preserve citizens’ already held freedom or to promote freedom’s future creation? 

The former belief calls naturally for restraint in governmental power, while the latter calls for expansive, active control. The American political philosophies of conservatism and liberalism—some may even say the Republican and Democratic Parties themselves—roughly align on opposite sides of this dichotomy.

It’s the base philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes revived, expanded and in constant conflict. It’s “man is born free” versus “man is a machine”; man is naturally good versus man is naturally evil.

In the United States, we have a system that lies somewhere between these two extremes.

Legal Philosopher Ronald Dworkin once provoked the wrath of late Justice Antonin Scalia in his claim that Scalia’s version of originalism—a process of legal interpretation in which statutes are interpreted by the understanding of a reasonable person at the time of a law’s enactment, often inextricably linked with political conservatism—binds societal progress through religious adherence to the dead hand of the past.” 

In response, Scalia claimed that Dworkin’s alternative version of originalism, which is more progressive, would corrupt democracy, allowing too much to change too quickly, something generally not in line with the popular will of the people and thus not only dangerous, but also in opposition to a properly functioning democracy.

The GOP, by the very nature of its now conservative base, has long held a tenuous relationship with certain social change. Traditionally, the party has seemed content to divorce itself from rapid pursuit of progressive goals in the vein of federally-mandated equality protection, such as many members’ disavowal of last summer’s marriage equality ruling by the United States Supreme Court or their continued skepticism of redistributive taxation plans of liberal ilk. 

But in 2016, we’re in the middle of what sometimes feels like a Republican civil war, roughly akin to Dworkin and Scalia’s originalism in-fighting. 

As current presidential election coverage shows, the Grand Old Party is sharply divided in many categories, both in presence and policy. 

The disagreements range from disputes on foreign policy and domestic security to squabbles over taxation and funding for federal programs. And yes, the battle over the government’s role in social legislation, from abortion to same-sex marriage, is still an ongoing debate.

So where should the party line fall? 

Republicans ought to reaffirm commitment to limited government, says Zachary Wyatt.

Wyatt’s near-libertarian extremism is naturally moderate when it comes to social issues. Small government means small government, necessitating little in the way of mandated morality. 

Today, that means a disavowal of religious liberty proposals.

Wyatt respects John Kasich, who he saw as one of the Republican candidates who was the most supportive of the LGBT community. 

Kasich has previously said that he does not support the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, but also that he would not seek to change it, and that Republicans need to learn to move on from the issue.

Wyatt himself holds his own sort of “move on” philosophy. 

Despite the Obergefell ruling, Article I Section 33 of the Missouri Constitution still states that “a marriage shall exist only between a man and a woman.” The wording specified the  “man” and “woman” requirement after a 2004 amendment passed via public referendum.

Similar lines remain in numerous other state constitutions, but, after Obergefell, are legally irrelevant. Despite that, many still exist in a codified form, prompting some to call for their complete removal or formal revision.

Zachary Wyatt is not one of those people.

In order to amend this specific wording, the state would need a vote of the people, Wyatt said. Some states, such as Minnesota, have already taken such a vote to remove the wording. Others, such as Missouri, have not. 

“It’s considered obsolete because of the ruling,” he said, referring to the Obergefell decision. “Right now, there’s more important work that needs to be done.”

Move on, indeed.

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Rep. Mike Colona, left, a Democrat and only openly gay member of the Missouri House of Representatives, voices his objections to SJR 39 during a committee hearing on April 27 in the Missouri Capitol. During the meeting, the outspoken Colona shared an emotional account of his own difficulties living as an openly gay Missourian. (Zachary Reger)

A path forward

In March of 2012, Wyatt announced that he would not run for re-election, instead wanting to use money available to members of the armed forces under the G.I. Bill to attend college. At that point, Wyatt had yet to receive a degree beyond his high school diploma.

Originally stating his intent to study marine biology at the University of Hawaii, Wyatt instead chose to attend Creighton University in Omaha. Going to school in Hawaii would have put him in debt, Wyatt said, so Creighton, who had offered to pay all remaining fees, was the smarter choice.

“I was quite happy with that offer,” Wyatt recalled. His studies began with an interest in Creighton’s renewable energy program, but, like many college students, Wyatt changed his major. He graduated in May of 2015 with a degree in classical near-eastern studies, emphasizing in Latin and Greek, which he hopes will prepare him should he decide to attend law school in the future.

While in college, Wyatt worked as a barista at Starbucks to make a bit of extra money. It was during this time that he met his current husband, David Gomez. They got married in March of 2014. Choosing to hyphenate their last names, the two officially became Zachary and David Wyatt-Gomez. 

Following graduation, Wyatt worked as a student loan advisor for Nelnet. He was later asked by the governor of Nebraska to apply for an open seat in the state’s unicameral legislature, he said. The Senate seat was vacated when former state Sen. Jeremy Nordquist left to take a job in Washington as chief of staff for a recently-elected U.S. representative from Nebraska, according to previous reporting by the Associated Press

Wyatt complied, but later had to rescind his application when he and his husband moved to a new home in western Iowa in September of 2015. In March of 2016, Wyatt began a new position as a center director and math tutor at Mathnasium. 

Wyatt and his husband currently live in Carter Lake, Iowa, which sits on the Nebraska side of the Missouri River. 

The town has a curious history; it was once on the Iowa side of the river, before a flood caused the water to be redirected from the town’s west to its east. When that happened, the two states took legal action, with the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately deciding in favor of the defendant, Iowa, in the case Nebraska v. Iowa (1892). 

Although caught in a legal battle that placed the town’s fate in the hands of others, Carter Lake was allowed to remain proudly Iowan, retaining its heritage.

It seems a fitting home for a man like Zachary Wyatt.

Will Wyatt ever run for office again?

“Politics is in my blood and will always be in my blood,” he said, saying he may challenge his district’s Democratic representative in the near future.

Few men can say they’ve served in two state legislatures, he noted.

For Wyatt, now is not only a moment of enormous change for himself, but also his party.

The GOP is gradually coming around to accept marriage equality, he said.

“There’s even a PAC for Republicans that are openly gay and running,” Wyatt said, expressing what he sees as a continued change in the thinking of party leadership.

“And then you have the Log Cabin Republicans,” he added, referring to an LGBT support group that works within the GOP. “This year, they’ve even been invited to the conservative PAC conference.”

Despite political pundits predicting an irreconcilable fracturing of the current Republican coalition, and what may seem to some like dangerous rhetoric from popular candidates, a few Republican loyalists, like Zachary Wyatt, are not only optimistic, but increasingly so.

Change is coming, they say; the path ahead is just anything but straight.

 

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Author: Zachary Reger

A graduate of the University of Missouri with degrees in journalism, philosophy and film studies, Zach's primary interests lie in political reporting, media production and social philosophy.

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