After deciding this year would be his last in the Missouri General Assembly, Zach Wyatt says he wanted to do something truly meaningful. He just didn’t know what.
But when news broke last month about a bill pushed by his fellow Republicans that would restrict discussion of sexual orientation in public schools — dubbed the "don't say gay" bill — Wyatt finally knew what he had to do.
On Wednesday, he publicly announced for the first time that he is gay. According to the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, a national group that works to elect gay, bisexual and transgendered people to public office, Wyatt is now the only openly gay Republican currently serving in a state legislature in the United States.
“I will not lie to myself anymore about my own sexuality,” said Wyatt, a first-term state representative, at a news conference in the Capitol. “Today I ask you to stand with me as a proud Republican, a proud veteran and a proud gay man who wants to protect all kids.”
The decision was not easy, he admitted. Wyatt, 27, grew up in Novinger, a rural town in northern Missouri with fewer than 500 residents. He lives just 10 miles away in Green Castle, where he raises cattle.
All throughout school he faced bullying for his weight and for “not always being perceived as the most masculine of men,” he recalled. Although he probably always knew he was gay, he said he was never able to truly accept it.
“Accepting is a much different thing,” Wyatt said. “It’s probably the hardest thing to come to terms with. I’ve always ignored it and didn’t even think about it or talk about it.”
After graduating from high school, he immediately joined the Air Force, serving several years as a linguist. The day he returned home from the Air Force was “the same day I signed up to run for the legislature.”
He won in 2010.
“My life has been very hectic. I just kept going on to the next thing, so I feel like I just didn’t take the time to reflect on things until last year,” he said in an interview with The Star.
That’s when he was finally able to be honest with himself about his sexuality, he said. But even then, he kept it a secret from almost everyone.
That is, until the introduction of House Bill 2051. It calls for a prohibition on teaching, extracurricular activities or materials that discuss sexual orientation in public schools except in “scientific instruction concerning human reproduction.”
The bill, which has attracted national attention, counts among its co-sponsors House Speaker Steve Tilley and House Majority Leader Tim Jones, both Republicans.
After casting numerous votes that he said went against his personal beliefs on the issue in order to toe the party line, Wyatt said he was finally fed up with the “bigotry on gay issues from both sides of the aisle.”
He opened up to family and close friends last week, and went public in the hopes of helping kill the legislation once and for all.
“It’s time to step up and lead on this issue,” Wyatt said. “This bill is just simply wrong.”
Critics contend the legislation could ostracize children who are exploring their sexual orientation and prevent meaningful intervention to stop bullying. They also fear it could eliminate more than 80 gay-straight alliances in schools across the state.
“The bill is a ridiculous waste of time,” said Sen. Jolie Justus, a Kansas City Democrat who before Wednesday was one of only three openly-gay lawmakers in Missouri. “We should be talking about beefing up our anti-bullying laws and making it safe for kids. But this law actually makes a school a more dangerous and hateful place.”
To its supporters, including lead sponsor state Rep. Steve Cookson of Fairdealing, the outrage the legislation has sparked is a result of people mischaracterizing what it actually would do.
Cookson, a Republican, said the bill only seeks to keep any discussion of sexual orientation out of the classroom and doesn’t specifically mention homosexuality. He believes schools should focus on core subjects, such as math and science, and leave everything else to parents.
“When we start going off in other directions that I feel like are social engineering, we’ve lost focus on what our core mission in schools is, and that is to teach skills we need to be successful,” Cookson said.
The bill would not prohibit a student struggling with sexual identity from talking to a school counselor, he said, it would just keep that discussion out of the classroom.
Cookson, a retired public school teacher and superintendent, said he introduced the legislation because he’s trying to represent “my part of the state. I don’t think people in our area want any kind of sexuality taught in our schools.”
Abram Messer of the Missouri Family Network said he believes homosexuality is a choice and not biological. His organization supports Cookson’s bill because it simply tells schools “we want you to teach biology and leave the rest to parents, the community and churches.”
Despite calls from Wyatt and numerous Democratic lawmakers to withdraw his bill, Cookson said he will not. He does, however, concede that it stands little chance of passage this year. It was assigned to the House Education Committee, whose chairman has said it will not get a hearing.
But by going public, Wyatt said he hopes to help others who may be struggling to come to terms with their own sexuality and motivate Republicans to join him in opposing the bill.
“I think there are a lot of people out there like me who are just afraid to tell society who they truly are,” he said. “Maybe they just need one person to come out. I want to show that I’m still the same guy my constituents voted for, I just also am gay.”
Three other Republican lawmakers — state Reps. Donna Lichtenegger of Jackson, Noel Torpey of Independence and Anne Zerr of St. Charles — stood with Wyatt at his news conference Wednesday.
“I wanted to be there for Zach and support him,” Torpey said.
Wyatt’s time in the legislature is nearly up. He surprised his district earlier this year when he decided not to run for re-election. Instead, he’ll move to Hawaii to study marine biology. If nothing else, he said, he hopes he can show people that the Republican Party isn’t the party of bigotry.
And he doesn’t fear any backlash or cold shoulder from his party. So far, at least, he said the reaction has been positive.
“If I can stop one kid from hurting themselves or taking their life, then I’ve done my job as a representative,” Wyatt said. “I’m still the same person I was when I woke up this morning, and I’ll be the same person when I go to bed tonight.”
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