Too Little, Too Late

Orrin Hatch gave a lovely Pride speech—but he failed to grapple with his own anti-LGBTQ past.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch arrives at a news conference in front of the U.S. Capitol March 13 in Washington.
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch arrives at a news conference in front of the U.S. Capitol March 13 in Washington. Alex Wong/Getty Images

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

In honor of Pride Month, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch gave a heartfelt speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday, expressing his support for the LGBTQ community and drawing attention to the high suicide rates among LGBTQ youth.

“No one should ever feel less because of their gender identity or sexual orientation,” Hatch said. “LGBT youth deserve our unwavering love and support. They deserve our validation and the assurance that not only is there a place for them in this society, but that it is far better off because of them. These young people need us—and we desperately need them.”

Yet Hatch, who is retiring at the end of the year after serving Utah in the Senate for 42 years, has a checkered legislative track record with regards to LGBTQ rights. Indeed, his long-standing hostility to equality may have contributed to the very marginalization of LGBTQ people that he now decries. It’s nice to see a Republican senator break from his party on this issue. But his Wednesday statement, however lovely it might’ve been, cannot make up for decades of anti-LGBTQ advocacy.

As a freshman senator in 1977, Hatch expressed his opposition to gay people teaching at public schools, telling a group of University of Utah students, “I wouldn’t want to see homosexuals teaching school any more than I’d want to see members of the American Nazi Party teaching school.” In the 1990s, Hatch supported the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal ban on same-sex marriage. He also filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the law against a constitutional challenge in 2013. When the Supreme Court struck down DOMA in 2013’s United States v. Windsor, Hatch criticized the majority for basing its decision on “its own personal opinion.”

Hatch also voted against the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009, which expanded federal hate crime laws to include crimes committed against people based on their gender identity and sexual orientation. During debate over the legislation, Hatch questioned whether it was necessary, suggesting that anti-gay violence was not “a major problem.” In 2012, Hatch opposed the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which he had co-sponsored with Joe Biden in 1994. The senator complained about the inclusion of “divisive projects” in the legislation’s updated provisions, such as language prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ people in programs funded through the law.

Hatch’s opposition to LGBTQ equality, however, has undoubtedly softened in recent years. In 2013, Hatch was one of only 10 Republican senators to vote in favor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would explicitly prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. And in July 2017, the senator spoke in favor of transgender Americans in response to President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would reinstate a ban on transgender people serving in the military. “I don’t think we should be discriminating against anyone,” Hatch said in a statement. “Transgender people are people, and deserve the best we can do for them.”

Hatch framed his Wednesday remarks in support of LGBTQ youth as a response to the nation’s suicide epidemic, noting that Utah has the fifth highest rate of suicide in the nation, with an average of 630 deaths each year. Hatch expressed concern over these figures and urged Americans of “all political stripes” to work together to prevent suicide through legislation such as the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act. He also emphasized that his perspective is influenced by his Mormon faith. “The first tenet of my faith is to love one another,” he said. Hatch’s invocation of his religion is significant, because the Mormon church has historically expressed hard-line opposition to LGBTQ rights.

Hatch’s compassionate speech was filled with idealistic language and commendable calls to collective action, but it did not acknowledge how his own conservative positions over the years may have contributed to the isolation and stigmatization among the LGBTQ people that he now bemoans. In a society in which homophobia and transphobia persist, a middle-ground approach is insufficient to eradicate prejudice and promote true acceptance.

As Hatch approaches retirement, he may be working to cement his political legacy in the midst of a Trumpian political climate increasingly characterized by polarization, division, and cruelty. It’s a good note to leave on, and it’s a notable shift for the longest-serving Republican senator in U.S. history. But for all Hatch’s talk about love, perhaps we should also make sure to reflect on how his actions in office match up to this rhetoric.