Regret over voting against a bill that would have outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation and fears that the sponsor of the 'Don't Say Gay' bill would take a leadership role, prompted a Republican Missouri lawmaker to come out during a press conference Wednesday morning.
State Rep. Zach Wyatt (R-Green Castle) said the 'Don't Say Gay' legislation -- which would bar the discussion of sexual orientation in public school classes and extracurricular activities -- drove him to make the announcement, which he never expected to make. House Bill 2051 gained support from the House's top Republican leadership, including the speaker and majority leader.
"I'd only come to terms myself about being gay in January," Wyatt told HuffPost.
Wyatt, 27, described today's announcement as "very difficult," noting that he has only told his family and several close friends about his sexuality. At the end of the day, he said, only one thing led him to the decision.
"I stopped to reflect on what I had come to the Missouri Legislature to do," Wyatt said. "What pushed me over the edge was 2051."
During his decision making process, Wyatt said he started thinking about the impact the bill would have on public schools and residents, along with two previous votes he cast on state legislation related to sexual orientation. In 2011, Wyatt joined fellow Republicans to oppose a bill that included provisions to add sexual orientation to the list of discriminatory crimes in the state. Wyatt said he took the party line on the vote, noting that other material in the overall bill concerned him. In addition, he opposed a bullying bill during the 2010 campaign.
"It was the Republican stance; there was little Republican support," Wyatt said of the discrimination bill. "I look back and regret voting no."
He said he discussed his opposition to 2051 with several leaders in the gay and lesbian community, including A.J. Bockelman, the executive director of PROMO, an LGBT advocacy group. Wyatt came to realize that he needed to take a public stand to block the bill. Wyatt, Bockelman and others don't think it is going to pass this year, noting that the education committee chairman also indicated his opposition to the bill.
At the same time, Jefferson City was rife with rumors that Rep. Steve Cookson (R-Fairdealing), the bill's sponsor, is likely to be named education committee chairman next year by Majority Leader Tim Jones (R-Eureka). Bockelman said the possibility of Cookson rising to a position of power mobilized opponents.
"We want to make sure we send a strong message," he told HuffPost, noting that the bill also recently gained the support of the Missouri Family Network.
Jones and Speaker Steve Tilley (R-Perryville), both co-sponsors of the measure, along with Cookson, could not be reached for comment about Wyatt's announcement; aides said all three were in meetings. Cookson previously released a statement that he believes sexual orientation is not a "core education issue." Other co-sponsors, including Ways and Means Committee Chairman Andrew Koenig (R-Winchester) and Small Business Committee Chairman Dwight Scharnhorst (R-St. Louis County), told HuffPost last month that they supported the bill because they believed sexual orientation should be taught by parents, clergy and physicians.
Scharnhorst also said he supported the bill in an effort to prevent other discussions in the schools. "There is no need to talk about Billy wanting to marry a goat," he told HuffPost in April.
Rep. Stephen Webber (D-Columbia), the sponsor of the anti-discrimination bill, said that with Tilley and Jones on board the effort is considered serious, but noted the short time left in the 2012 legislative session will make it tough to pass. He has had discussions with Republicans who oppose 'Don't Say Gay' and support his bill privately, but decline to make their support public, said Webber.
Webber also praised Wyatt for his decision today. "This is actual courage," he said. "This is an actual example of someone being brave."
Wyatt said that while he has spoken to Tilley and Jones since his press conference, they have only offered him congratulations on his announcement, but have not discussed the bill. He said that he hopes to speak with them this week. Wyatt, who is not seeking reelection in order to study marine biology at the University of Hawaii, said that he will remain a Republican and never expected to be so public about his sexuality, but noted he wanted to help others.
"I keep thinking of those kids getting bullied or worse yet, killing themselves," he said. "I felt I needed to sacrifice a little."