In many respects, Missouri state Rep. Zach Wyatt (R) fits the profile of a typical Republican. He extols the virtues of low taxes and fiscal conservatism. He has cast votes to place restrictions on abortions, require voter identification and mandate drug testing for welfare recipients. He describes himself as a “big Mitt Romney supporter.” But on Wednesday, Wyatt became the country’s only openly gay Republican state lawmaker when he came out during a press conference in Jefferson City, Mo.
The press conference was conducted by legislators from both parties and gay rights advocates to signal opposition to proposed legislation, widely known as the “don’t say gay” bill, that would prohibit discussion of sexual orientation in public schools. Wyatt spoke to TPM on Thursday, a day after the announcement.
“It’s a moment of peace,” he said. “I feel a lot better.”
At 27, Wyatt is the youngest member of the Missouri General Assembly. Immediately following seven years in the Air Force as an airborne cryptologic linguist (he is fluent in both Russian and Chechen), he filed papers to run for the state house seat in Missouri’s 2nd District in 2010. Throughout the campaign, his eventual victory over the two-term Democratic incumbent and his first year in office, Wyatt remained in the closet.
He has come to regret positions he took during that stretch, particularly his opposition to anti-bullying and anti-discrimination bills, both of which would have included protections for homosexuals along with other groups.
“I didn’t lead on those issues,” Wyatt said. “But after that I knew I had to be a leader and come to terms with [being gay].”
Wyatt’s self-realization came in early January, when he had some time alone in his rural Missouri home following the bedlam of the holiday season. The solitude proved fruitful. He emerged from his temporary seclusion with a renewed desire to earn a bachelor’s degree, as well as total acceptance of his identity as a gay man.
“I live out in the country and I Iike being able to get away and be by myself with my thoughts,” Wyatt said. “I was able to do that, which helped me regain control over everything. It was a pretty big breakthrough.”
Wyatt admits that he had an inkling of his sexual orientation for quite some time and that others had perceived him to be gay prior to this week’s public revelation. “It was one of those things where I probably knew, but I didn’t want to know,” Wyatt said. “I just never thought of myself as gay. I was lying to myself.”
His announcement at the state capitol on Wednesday came amid calls to withdraw the so-called “don’t say gay” bill — known officially as HB 2051 — from the legislative docket. Wyatt said he used the occasion to come out in the hopes that it might help his Republican colleagues better understand the effect such legislation has on people they know.
“I’m going to try to educate my party on these issues and let them know that there are gay members of our party,” Wyatt said. “If I can get them to understand that putting forth legislation might be harmful to even members of their own party, they might think twice.”
Wyatt will leave the general assembly at the end of the current session to pursue a degree in marine biology at the University of Hawaii, but he insists that he would have come out even if he were seeking re-election this year. “I really would have,” he said.
To that end, Wyatt still envisions playing a role in politics and hopes that he can use his newfound stature to bridge the gap between the Republican Party and the gay and lesbian community. He said the early returns from his fellow legislators and constituents have been overwhelmingly positive.
“People realize that I am the same person when I woke up yesterday and I’m going to be the same person until the day I die,” Wyatt said. “This didn’t change me. Now they just know a little bit more about me.”
Watch Wyatt’s press conference from earlier this week:
Tom Kludt is a newswriter for TPM. A former research intern and polling fellow for TPM, he lives and works in New York City. Tom graduated summa cum laude from the University of South Dakota in May of 2010 with a B.A. in Political Science and History. He can be reached at Tom (at) talkingpointsmemo.com.