JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – A Republican Missouri House member who previously served in the U.S. Air Force publicly announced Wednesday that he is gay and called upon GOP leaders in the state Legislature to withdraw a bill that would limit discussion of sexual orientation in public schools.
Rep. Zachary Wyatt, a 27-year-old cattle farmer from the rural northern Missouri town of Novinger, said the legislation had motivated him to disclose his sexual orientation publicly for the first time. Wyatt was joined by nine other Democratic and Republican lawmakers in denouncing Missouri legislation that would prohibit teaching, extracurricular activities or materials that discuss sexual orientation, unless they relate to the scientific facts about human reproduction.
"I will not lie to myself anymore about my own sexuality," Wyatt said during a news conference at the state Capitol. "I am still the same person that I was when I woke up this morning and I will be the same person when I go to bed tonight. 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 addressing bullying in our schools."
Wyatt is not running for re-election in Missouri, because he plans to move to Hawaii and study marine biology.
A spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a national group that backs gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual candidate, said Wyatt is the only openly gay Republican in the nation who is currently serving in a state legislature. Other gay Republicans have served in state legislatures in the past. Two other members of the Missouri House, both Democrats from urban areas, are openly homosexual. One Democratic Missouri state senator is also openly lesbian.
The Missouri bill appears unlikely to pass before the session ends May 18. It was referred to a House education committee last month and has not received a hearing. But the legislation has generated attention and controversy. Comedian Stephen Colbert recently mocked it on his cable TV show.
Opponents have dubbed the legislation the "don't say gay" bill. They contend it could forbid teachers from uttering the words "gay" or "lesbian" in the classroom or talking about bullying that gay and lesbian students face from their peers. The legislation also appears to forbid school-sponsored "gay-straight alliance" groups, which advocate for gay and lesbian rights.
The lawmakers at Wednesday's news conference called for the sponsor of the bill to withdraw the legislation.
But Rep. Steve Cookson said he won't do that. Cookson, a Republican from the rural southern Missouri town of Fairdealing, said he believes parents and family members, not schools, should teach children about different kinds of sexuality.
"Those are personal issues that probably should be taught by people outside the school system," he said. "We need to be focusing on what is going to provide students with the skills they need to be productive citizens in our society."
Cookson insisted his bill does not explicitly ban the mention of specific words. He did not say whether he intends to ban school-sponsored "gay-straight alliance" groups.
"I think we're headed into some very tricky waters there," Cookson said. "There could be all kinds of different groups that could want to be sponsored by a school, and some of them you may think are good groups and some of them you may think are bad groups."