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Monday, June 5, 2023
June 5, 2023

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Meet the Idaho Christians pushing for greater LGBTQ representation in government


BOISE, Idaho — Meridian Parks and Recreation Commissioner Dom Gelsomino recently recalled a speech he’d made in 2018, as a delegate to the Idaho GOP State Convention.

He had pleaded with fellow Republicans to support same-sex marriage. Opposing marriage equality cuts against conservative ideals of smaller government and Bible lessons, Gelsomino argued. Why, he said he wondered at the time, was the party still having this discussion?

Gelsomino, a conservative Christian and gay man, said he thought his speech would spur more allies to come forward. Instead, he found himself alone.

“I was just one voice in a sea of silence,” he told the Idaho Statesman by phone. “I had hoped that my speech that day would have been a spark of inspiration for others … to find the conviction to stand up and be more vocal on this.”

Four years later, not much has changed.

Public support for LGBTQ rights in Idaho has grown in the past two decades, according to an October poll commissioned by the Statesman. Yet several Republican political leaders and conservative activists have continued to vilify Idaho’s LGBTQ community, often using Christian doctrine to back their claims. Two-thirds of Idaho residents are Christian, and so are a majority of elected officials involved in policymaking.

And while Christian churches have slowly shifted toward LGBTQ acceptance, Idaho’s politics have remained stagnant. Gelsomino, who ran for a legislative seat this year, and other Christians in the LGBTQ community are pushing Idaho’s politics to progress too.

LGBTQ rights remain unsettled among Christians

Next legislative session, Idaho lawmakers are expected to consider a bill banning drag performances, the Idaho Capital Sun reported. The bill comes from Blaine Conzatti, president of the Idaho Family Policy Center, a religious lobbying group.

Conzatti has helped craft other controversial legislation, including Idaho’s prohibition on transgender women and girls competing in female school sports. Earlier this year, he published a column, crowded with Bible references, that called homosexuality “sinful,” “immoral” and “an abomination.”

Around the same time, Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, said drag queens and LGBTQ supporters are waging “a war of perversion against our children.” Former Rep. Chad Christensen, R-Iona, said on Facebook, “Any attempt to change one’s gender is ungodly and offensive to Him.”

Some religious leaders go even further. A fundamentalist Baptist pastor from Boise this year called for gay people to be executed, citing the Bible. But not all Christians interpret scripture the same way.

“You can find justification for just about anything in the Bible,” said the Rev. David Wettstein, a retired pastor who led St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Boise for nearly three decades. “It’s a cultural thing. We read certain parts and we don’t read other parts. Some people want to use certain parts of the Bible as a bludgeon.”

The Episcopal Church in the U.S. ordains same-sex marriages and LGBTQ clergy. It has admitted women into the priesthood — not the norm among Christians — since 1970. That’s not to say the church has always been a leader on equality; the church rejected calls to back Black members’ demonstrations during the Civil Rights Movement.

“The church hasn’t always been, and I certainly have not always been, consistent or enlightened about how we treat folks,” Wettstein said by phone. “We’re all on a journey.”

Wettstein credits female Episcopalian leaders for bringing a different voice to leadership and dragging “stodgy old white guys” into a conversation about representation.

Boise’s Cathedral of the Rockies, and most United Methodist churches in the Western U.S., have long ignored church rules that outlaw LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage, Pastor Duane Anders told the Statesman by phone.

The trend caused a rift in the church and local denominations intent on preserving tradition, including a United Methodist church in Eagle, are considering a split.

“We’ve been pretty upfront that we are working hard to be an inclusive church,” Anders said by phone. “Even if we have different understandings of those scriptures, we can still all worship.”

In 2016, Bishop Karen Oliveto became the first openly lesbian bishop in the United Methodist Church. She continues to represent the Mountain Sky Conference, a regional oversight organization covering Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana and one church in Central Idaho.

As controversy clouded her ordination, Oliveto told NPR in 2017 that her church could set an example for a country entrenched in cultural division.

“I believe if we in The United Methodist Church can show what it’s like to live together, even with our differences, that we have a witness to make to the rest of the world,” she said.

Push for political representation stalls

Idaho’s LGBTQ community seeks comparable representation in politics.

In this year’s GOP primary, Gelsomino was the only openly gay candidate on the ballot. A self-described pragmatic, independent-minded, conservative Christian, Gelsomino ran for a House seat, and said he hoped to bridge a widening divide between Idaho Republicans and the LGBTQ community.

“If given the opportunity, they forget that we live in a constitutional republic and not a theocracy,” Gelsomino said. “Without some form of pushback or accountability measures, it’s just going to get worse, unfortunately.”

Gelsomino lost his election in the primary. Along with the retirement of Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City, the Legislature’s only openly gay lawmaker, Idaho now has no elected state officials who are known members of the LGBTQ community.

As of June, the U.S. totaled more than 1,000 known LGBTQ elected officials, a nearly 6% increase from the previous year, according to the LGBTQ Victory Institute’s Out for America 2022 report. Just 3% are Republicans.

Another 35,854 LGBTQ elected officials would be needed to achieve equitable representation and reflect the U.S. population, the June report found. Nationwide, more than 400 LGBTQ candidates — a record number — were elected in the November midterms, coinciding with “extraordinary” attacks on the community, according to the national organization LGBTQ Victory Fund.

Gelsomino said he doesn’t know how many citizens in his voting district are members of the LGBTQ community. But he’s heard from some who are alarmed by the lack of representation, particularly amid high-profile examples of anti-LGBTQ intolerance.

In June, dozens of members of a white nationalist group were arrested in Coeur d’Alene and later charged with criminal conspiracy to riot in connection with plans to disrupt an LGBTQ Pride celebration.

Gelsomino has remained active since the election. This summer he defended the Meridian Library District against demands by a right-wing group, the Idaho Liberty Dogs, to ban books about sexuality. Gelsomino again pointed out the irony as conservatives employed what he described as a heavy hand in government.

After his GOP primary opponent, James Petzke, won the general election in November, Gelsomino arranged a meeting to urge the new lawmaker to stand up for LGBTQ rights and liberties. Gelsomino said the message was well-received.

“People need to keep building bridges,” Gelsomino said.

What’s driving LGBTQ intolerance?

David Roth, Idaho’s first openly gay Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, was concerned how voters would react to his sexual identity being a focal point of his campaign this year.

“I’ve really gone my entire life without trying to make it an issue,” he told the Statesman by phone.

Roth ultimately decided a candid approach would be less likely to arouse unease in a conservative state that, on the surface, appears unfriendly to the LGBTQ community. Roth had navigated intolerance before, growing up in a traditional eastern Idaho Christian church that condemns homosexuality.

“The only way that you are going to change people’s minds is by letting them get to know you,” he said.

Incumbent U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, a Republican who recently voted against a bill to protect same-sex marriage, handily won the election, as expected. But Roth said his campaign received an overwhelmingly positive response.

The Statesman’s recent statewide survey found Idaho residents — both Democrats and Republicans — increasingly support LGBTQ rights. Idahoans broadly support legal protections from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. About half support same-sex marriage, a shift since 2006, when two-thirds of Idaho voters approved banning it.

Roth, a father of two adopted children and director of a nonprofit in Idaho Falls, doesn’t believe that religion is the primary influence behind LGBTQ intolerance. As a kid, Roth’s family was deeply involved in church, which is why he didn’t come out until adulthood.

“Even some of the staunchest members of my family, who I was afraid would never come around, came around rather quickly,” he said.

Instead, it’s right-wing politics that drives intolerance, Roth said.

“For as long as there’s been politics, one of the most effective ways of gaining support is to find a common enemy, to find someone to blame,” he said.

Legislation like the proposed drag show prohibition, Roth said, creates a narrow perception of the LGBTQ community. Members of the LGBTQ community are soccer moms and dads, who volunteer in their communities and bring homemade goods to school bake sales, he said.

Roth doesn’t have a good solution to mend the disconnect. For his part, Roth said he’s going to keep running for office and stay active in his community.

“When we gain people’s respect, eventually it’ll change hearts and minds,” he said.