Utah Gov. Spencer Cox answers 6 questions about why he supports LGBTQ+ Pride

‘Put yourself in the shoes of the people that you’re attacking,’ Gov. Spencer Cox says of intolerance

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox last week officially designated the month of June as LGBTQ+ Pride Month — the first such statewide designation in Utah’s history.

The Republican farmer from rural Sanpete County began his first year in office as governor with a call for civility amid a time of political polarization, what Cox described during his inauguration ceremony as a national “crisis of empathy” and a “scourge of contempt.”

Cox has long been a supporter of the LGBTQ+ community. Before he was elected governor, he made national headlines for an emotional 2016 speech he gave at a Salt Lake City vigil to honor the victims of the Pulse Nightclub massacre, a shooting at a gay bar in Florida that left 49 dead. In that speech, Cox apologized for at times not being “kind” to fellow high school students of his that he later found out were gay, saying his “heart has changed” and he will “forever regret not treating them with the love, kindness, dignity and respect — the love — that they deserve.”

During the early days of Pride Month in Utah, we asked Cox to answer six questions about why he made the official designation, what more should be done for the LGBTQ+ community, and how his fellow Republican Party members have reacted to his position of support.

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Deseret News: It’s Pride Month in Utah and across the nation, countering shame with dignity, equality and self-affirmation. What is the message you want to send Utahns about why you designated June as Pride Month?

Gov. Spencer Cox: The biggest message of all is that I hope we can treat our fellow Utahns with kindness, with respect and make Utah a place where everyone feels welcome, regardless of their sexual orientation or any other category that we tend to put people in. And certainly our nation and the world has a long history of not treating the LGBTQ+ community with that type of love and respect, and I’m grateful to see that it’s changing here, and that’s my message to Utahns.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said in a news conference that his office is reviewing the effectiveness of what some other states are doing to offer incentives to residents who get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Gov. Spencer Cox reacts to a question about his previous prediction of removing masks by the Fourth of July during the last weekly COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 27, 2021. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Deseret News: You’ve discussed the importance of respect, civility and inclusivity as governor. How can that best be accomplished specifically regarding the LGBTQ+ community?

Gov. Spencer Cox: It’s so important, and it’s something I’ve been deeply concerned about. The way we accomplish that with this community, again it’s just treating them like everyone else and not treating them any differently. Of course, we can talk about that in the form of discrimination. And Utah has been a real thought leader on that issue when it comes to housing and employment, but I’m hoping for something much greater than that.

It’s not enough to just not discriminate against people but to actually get to know and learn to love people. It’s hard to hate when you’re close to someone. And the closer we get to people who are different than us and, again — whether that’s with sexual orientation or race or religion or gender, whatever it is that has been the basis for discrimination in the past — when we get close to people, what we realize is that we’re really not that different, and that most of us want the same things in life. And that’s what I hope we can learn from those who are different than us.

Deseret News: You talked about how Utahns have come together in supporting LGBTQ+ rights in jobs and housing. What more needs to be done here policy-wise?

Gov. Spencer Cox: That’s a good question. We’re constantly talking about policy issues surrounding people in different categories. I don’t know, I’m more interested in the social aspects. So let me back up a little bit. Where my concern lies right now is with suicide rates. That’s the area that I’m concerned about. We know that, nationally, attempted suicides are three to four times higher for lesbian and gays and bisexuals, and I think it’s eight to 10 times higher for transgender individuals. And so, there’s only so much the policy can do.

What we do know is there have been some studies done that show that whenever there’s some acceptance, even a very, very base level of acceptance — “I don’t understand this, I don’t approve of it ... but I love you, and I want to help you through this” — even something just basic like that, the suicide rates go down significantly.

It’s where rejection is the only thing received that we tend to see those higher rates, and so that’s where I think we need to do the most work. I don’t know that there are policies to implement. But there are policies that can hurt and make it worse. And that’s where I think we need to be careful. But we have to do more as a community to help each other and to help families that may be struggling in this area.

Deseret News: What intolerance do you see in Utah regarding the LGBTQ+ community, and what should be done about it?

Gov. Spencer Cox: It’s so important to have opportunities to talk to people. You know, I obviously don’t see things firsthand, though I certainly have been attacked for pushing an agenda of kindness and inclusion. And that’s I think deeply concerning and frustrating. But I want to focus on the improvement because I do think it’s getting much better.

I will tell you, in just since the time I became lieutenant governor over the past eight years, I’ve seen a tremendous shift in attitudes in willingness to, you know, accept and love and welcome people. I have families — all the time — people come up and talk to me about experiences that they’ve had and how their hearts have changed over the past few years to family members or friends that have come out to them who maybe were originally met with rejection, and now with much more kindness and inclusion and understanding. And so I want to give Utahns credit.

And by the way, I’m one of those people. This has been a journey, I think, for everyone, and for some that happens faster and for some it happens slower. But for most people, it does happen. Attitudes change in positive ways, and we’ll make Utah a better place and we’ll literally save lives.

Deseret News: There are some scattered examples (of intolerance). There was recently a Pride flag burning in Kaysville that made headlines. In past years, there’s small groups of protesters who do show up at Pride parades in Salt Lake City. Any specific message you have for those folks who feel that strongly about this and show it outwardly?

Gov. Spencer Cox: My message would be to try to be more understanding, to try to learn some empathy, to try to put yourself in the shoes of the people that you’re attacking.

I will say what I’ve loved in recent years — and that stuff has always been with us and will probably always will be, there will always be those that act in negative ways — but it’s the response to those things that we’re seeing now that we didn’t see before: An overwhelming response to fill that hate and negative space with love and kindness as neighborhoods, communities rally to those families or those who have been degraded or attacked or had their flags burned or whatever. I think that’s the change that we’ll see, and I think over time those episodes, hopefully, will decrease and the kindness will become the norm.

Deseret News: As a Republican governor, have you experienced criticism for your support of the LGBTQ+ community from members from within your own party, and what message do you have specifically from them who disagree with you?

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Gov. Spencer Cox: Well, I certainly have. You know, of course as governor, that’s part of the deal. I get attacked for saying the sky is blue. My message would be — and one of the things I’m hopeful of — in fact there’s been some data around this recently that showed that the Republican Party is changing and is much more open to this.

I think from a very base, practical, political standpoint, I think that it’s critical to the survival of the party. I think there’s a younger generation for sure — my own kids are good examples of this — that see the world very differently, and I can’t imagine why anyone would be hostile toward this segment of our society.

But more importantly, as a Republican, this is who we are. I believe that the conservative movement is about empowering individuals and helping everyone to be successful, regardless of their backgrounds or beliefs or their sexual orientation. And so I actually think it’s very firmly with the party of Lincoln, that we would be the party that seeks to help others to lift those, especially those that are the most marginalized, and those that are struggling, to give them the same opportunities as everyone else.

I can’t wait to get to a point where it’s not a big deal. Where we don’t focus on these differences, because they don’t matter, and we treat everyone with the same level of kindness, compassion and respect.

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