Utah Republican Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is having a moment.
The Mormon politician captured national media attention after speaking at a vigil Monday for the victims of the Orlando shooting that left 49 people dead and 53 wounded. "My heart has changed," the lieutenant governor told the audience.
In the speech, Cox called attention to himself, saying he's aware of being an unlikely voice at an LGBT vigil. "I recognize fully that I am a balding, youngish, middle-aged straight, white, male, Republican politician ... with all of the expectations and privileges that come with those labels," he said, at the Salt Lake City event.
"I'm here because those 49 people were gay. I'm here because it shouldn't matter. But I'm here because it does," said the lieutenant governor. He made reference to his childhood, which he looked back on with guilt for teasing kids who were "different."
"I didn't know it at the time," he said, "but I know now that they were gay." The lieutenant governor explained that he grew up in a small town and went to a rural high school, but he will "forever regret not treating" his queer peers "with the kindness, dignity and respect -- the love -- that they deserved." Cox followed his statement of regret with an apology: "I sincerely and humbly apologize."
He also reached out to straight people who do not support LGBT rights, asking them to sympathize with the victims in Orlando. "I am speaking now to the straight community," he said. He asked them if their feelings changed on the shooting in Orlando when they heard the victims were, by and large, LGBT: "Did that feeling change when you found out the shooting was at a gay bar at 2 a.m. in the morning? If that feeling changed, then we are doing something wrong."
Toward the end of his speech, the lieutenant governor called on people to be "a little kinder." He asked that people try to listen more and talk less. He delivered a special message to his straight friends, asking them to try to love someone who is different. "Might I suggest starting with someone who is gay," said the lieutenant governor.
Except for having endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz in the Utah primary, Lt. Gov. Cox does not have an anti-LGBT record, said Michael Aaron, the editor of Utah LGBT publication QSaltLake. In fact, Aaron told The Advocate, Cox has in the past been sympathetic toward LGBT people in Utah. In June 2015, for example, there was a series of attacks and vandalism in the small town of Delta. They were first reported as anti-LGBT hate crimes but were later revealed to be staged. The lieutenant governor visited the town twice and met with families, said Aaron, who was there on one of those occasions.
"In the gay community in Salt Lake City, we look at Republicans and say they're always the devil," said Aaron, explaining the divide between LGBT people and conservative politicians in Utah. "There are so few Republican legislators that are not on that side, and this was the first time I'd ever seen him in public and spoken to him. I've been very involved for many, many years, but I just found him to be really genuine, and you could tell he wasn't reading off a script, you could tell he was genuinely concerned."
Some LGBT people might be hesitant to welcome Cox with open arms because he is a Republican, says Aaron. But in Utah, Aaron, who was at the vigil where Cox read his speech, said he heard a different response from LGBT folks. "What I kept hearing from people around me was that if we're going to have to have a Republican governor, he would be a really good option."
The lieutenant governor doesn't risk much backlash from his own party, argued Aaron, because like his boss, he doesn't face the pressure of reelection. Cox was appointed to his position by the current governor, Republican Gary Herbert, and confirmed by the state Senate. Aaron said it's possible that even Herbert would be more friendly toward LGBT people "if he wasn't having to respond to some of the most right-leaning voters in the state to win elections." Otherwise, said Aaron, "He'd probably be more along the lines of a Spencer Cox than he is right now."
Herbert hasn't exactly been a friend to the LGBT community. Most recently, Utah was one of 11 states that filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration over a federal guidance document that suggests public schools allow transgender students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. Herbert spent nearly $600,000 defending the state's marriage ban in court before eventually losing in the Supreme Court. You might remember that awkward moment of legal limbo when Herbert had lost his case in court and some 1,300 same-sex couples quickly lined up and got married, only to have Herbert refuse to recognize their marriages until the high court weighed in.
And, perhaps most striking, Herbert gave a welcome address in October to the so-called World Conference of Families, which LGBT activists call a "hate group."
Herbert also signed a housing and employment LGBT nondiscrimination bill into law in May 2015, but it's not to be taken at face value. The law, which was hailed as a "model for other red states," came with a caveat -- a major religious exemption.
In Utah, that basically means an exemption for the Mormon Church, which has large influence in the state, and which revised its leadership manual in November in response to the Supreme Court's ruling on marriage equality. The manual now says that entering into a same-sex marriage constitutes apostasy, that is, a rejection of church teachings, and it's grounds for punishment up to and including dismissal from the faith.
The manual was also updated to say that children living with parents who are in a same-sex relationship could not be baptized until they turned 18, and then only if they stop living with their parents and take a public position opposing such relationships. There have been mass resignations from the church in response.
The govenor of Utah, though, was asked what he thought about such a policy, and he said nothing. He opted to sit out that conversation.
In an interview with Salt Lake City radio station KSL Thursday, after his speech went viral, the lieutenant governor said he wants "to be careful not to make this about me." He was suprised by the response, given "that a nobody politician from the state of Utah just saying nice things to people is worthy of a lot of attention." He told the radio station that people "from the right and left" reached out to say "you said what we were thinking." And all of that's true. But he also told KSL that he was hopeful that "next time" people will feel welcome to "give voice to their own feelings."
The question is whether giving voice to feelings includes talking with your boss about his anti-LGBT record. Does it include support for marriage equality? Or for letting transgender people use the bathroom that matches their gender identity?
Some might suggest it's refreshing to see a Republican politician embrace the LGBT community; others may be hesitant to embrace the speech as something other than a viral moment. No one knows whether he will he be taking this pro-LGBT message to his church or to his boss, the governor, to create real and lasting change that could impact the lives of LGBT people in Utah.
The Advocate reached out to the lieutenant governor via his office multiple times over the course of two days and left multiple voice mails and emails, but we haven't gotten a chance to ask that question.
Watch the lieutenant governor's full speech below: