The Life Outside | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

The Life Outside 

Six months after delivering watershed speech, Spencer Cox reflects on equal rights, family and virality.

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click to enlarge Cox says his words resonated in part due to people being "hungry for us to stop calling each other names." - DW HARRIS
  • DW Harris
  • Cox says his words resonated in part due to people being "hungry for us to stop calling each other names."

Perhaps Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is being generous when he says he relates to millennials.

The 41-year-old father of four is closer in age, after all, to Janet Jackson than Katy Perry, albeit slightly. Then again, scan through his Twitter feed and it's immediately clear Cox has an adroit handle on social media—megaphones for the millennial voice. There, Cox has cultivated an engaging persona, and he dispatches dozens of tweets each week, replete with quippy one-liners, emojis, GIFs, internet acronyms and #hashtags. He communicates earnest responses when the moment requires, and wry jabs or self-deprecation when it doesn't.

Indeed, Cox doesn't just mirror the lexicon of social media—he's fluent in it. It's indicative of the officeholder's smart but sincere adaptability, a characteristic he displayed publicly this year.

On a Sunday morning about six months ago, Cox, in his Fairview home, rose and welcomed the day with what's become his morning routine of browsing online news. Dominating the Twittersphere that hour were reports of a mass shooting. Beginning with accounts from the night prior, Cox read the grim news, breaking in 140-character-sized spurts. He was stunned.

"I see the first tweet: 'Reports of shots fired, police responding.' And then: 'There are casualties,'" he says. Reading on, the body count ticked higher in subsequent updates. "And then you start to see the extent."

On June 11, a 29-year-old gunman, armed with a semi-automatic rifle and 9mm pistol, stormed into the packed Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Wantonly, he sprayed rounds of bullets, killing 49 people and injuring dozens more. Reports indicate patrons tried to escape the carnage, hiding in bathroom stalls or behind bodies. Several slipped out a back door while others sent out distress texts and phone calls. A militarized police force responded and after a 45-minute standoff, officers stunned and shot the killer. It's been deemed the deadliest domestic shooting spree in U.S. history. Pulse catered to an LGBTQ crowd, and authorities suspect that coupled with Omar Mateen's apparent ISIS sympathies, he was possessed by deep-seated homophobia. The country, once again, took a collective gasp.

Naturally, the magnitude of this shooting disturbed Cox, who talked solemnly about the massacre with his wife, unaware that his name would soon be connected to the nation's healing. That evening, he received a text message from State Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, inviting the lieutenant governor to speak at a Monday night vigil in front of the City and County Building.

"I wasn't sure he was going to do it," Dabakis says. "It was an election season." With a looming June primary, Republican voters would soon be picking between Cox's running mate, Gov. Gary Herbert, and challenger Jonathan Johnson, who had galvanized GOP conventiongoers in April by painting the incumbent as a moderate. Not only did Herbert fail to secure the nominee at the convention with 60 percent of delegate votes, but he also came in second to Johnson by a healthy margin. The two GOP candidates were poised for a runoff. Dabakis wondered whether Cox might be tempted to distance himself from appearing pro-LGBTQ to a disapproving base. Nevertheless, having watched Cox deliver a rousing college commencement speech, Dabakis held out hope that he would accept.

As a statesman, the lieutenant governor first sought Herbert's blessing to speak about love, kindness and unity. "Sounds fine to me," Herbert texted back, then asked that messaging go by Jon Cox, the governor's communications director and a distant relative to Spencer Cox.

Cox accepted Dabakis' invite, admitting now he felt a smidgen of hesitancy but none based on political calculations. Instead, Cox worried that he was an outsider and an unlikely bastion of solace for the LGBTQ community. Cox is a straight Utah Republican and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Having agreed to speak, however, he penned the speech, gave it a once-over and then put it away until the vigil.

More than 1,000 people showed up on a drizzly evening less than 48 hours after the Orlando shooting. Among the throng was Kelley Neal, who is also known as drag queen Harry-It Winston. Neal didn't know what to expect from the speaker, other than he was a Republican politician. "I think I had preconceived notions on his stance of LGBTQ issues," Neal says. "With Gov. Herbert's stances and positions, sometimes you think the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree."

But Neal, standing near the stage, his 6-foot-1 frame heightened by a platinum bouffant wig, quickly realized he was wrong.

Central to its message, the speech asserted that hate, wrath and demagoguery are unproductive in combating tragedy and that in the face of fear, compassion and understanding are necessary fronts. Sounding at moments to be choking up with emotion, Cox said straight people should check themselves and determine whether their emotional reaction diminished after learning that the killer targeted a gay club in the middle of the night. "If that feeling changed, then we are doing something wrong," he said.

In one memorably contrite paragraph, Cox offered amends to those LGBTQ classmates from his youth whom he might have hurt in rural Sanpete County. "I regret not treating them with the kindness, dignity and respect—the love that they deserve. For that I sincerely and humbly apologize," he read. "In the intervening years, my heart has changed."

A bully-turned-nice-guy narrative formed. While that made for enticing headlines, it wasn't quite the case, Cox says. Describing his younger self as small, nerdy and at times chatty, he remembers being stuffed into a hallway garbage bin. Cox, it turns out, was more often the victim of bullying than the perpetrator. Likewise, Cox didn't make a habit of taunting or verbally accosting gay kids. The behavior for which Cox apologized was much subtler but nonetheless mean-spirited. Once in awhile, he gossiped behind kids' backs, those he detected were different, though unaware at the time of their sexual orientation. He told the crowd that he didn't have an exact knowledge of how LGBTQ people felt, but he could empathize with their fear, isolation or sadness.

An hour after he spoke, Cox lingered with members of the crowd, who shared their own experiences of despair, rejection, love and hope. He left that night feeling positive—that goodwill would rise out of the horror. What followed was a media blitz, shining a spotlight on Cox, who humbly, but not altogether successfully, tried to deflect the focus from himself and onto "the message." His face and voice were broadcast on national news. Cox accepted interview requests, but insistently says the story from that night isn't him.

"I think it's sad that a no-name, nobody lieutenant governor from a small state in the middle of nowhere gets all this attention just by saying, 'We should be nice to each other.'" he says. "I think that's how far political discourse in our country has fallen, and people are just hungry for us to stop calling each other names, and to try to work together, and to be kind."

Cox wasn't the lone speaker at the vigil, and he contends "there were five or six amazing speeches that were better than mine."

Dabakis disagrees: "His speech was by far the best." LGBTQ residents have come to expect opposition from Utah's top officials, he notes, and that the lieutenant governor emerged as a thoughtful and eloquent ally shouldn't be dismissed. "LGBTQ people feel like state government has used them as a punching bag to kind of increase their bonafides with a very conservative wing in their party."

Dabakis says Herbert and Attorney General Sean Reyes are particularly bad offenders. The latter, he accuses, has "never seen a gay-bashing lawsuit ... that he hasn't jumped on."

Equality Utah also panned Herbert for joining a lawsuit to fight President Barack Obama's guidelines to protect transgender students in school bathrooms, as well as Reyes' decision to file a "friend of the court" brief that sided with an anti-LGBTQ law Mississippi passed.

Reyes says his office is charged with upholding the laws of the people and defending the state. He says he prioritizes working to protect vulnerable populations.

"On occasion, the AGO has defended lawsuits against the state brought by members of the LGBTQA+ community," he says in an emailed statement. "Similarly, the AGO would defend a state law protecting their interests, if challenged, and is currently assisting legislators in developing legislation protecting vulnerable populations. ... Our duty as an office is to defend the laws passed by the people, and we work to balance the interests of all individuals when we do so."

As Herbert's right-hand man, Cox serves for an administration that fought against same-sex marriage before begrudgingly accepting the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that barred states from marriage discrimination.

This was one of the few critical arguments lobbed against Cox in the aftermath. Wise to the political climate, the lieutenant governor expected some backlash but was met with very little. After repeated requests for copies of the speech, Cox posted it to his Facebook page where it reached a sizable audience. The outpouring was abundantly positive. It generated several hundred likes, and more than 120 comments from Facebook users in both Utah and states afar. For months after, he continued to be approached in public by people who heard about his speech, he says, and admired his thoughtfulness.

He estimates the ratio of positive responses to negative to be in the ballpark of 1,000 to 1, discounting the negative feedback to be from "trolls." On his Facebook, amid the myriad thankful messages, a minority of posters accused Cox of professing love for the sake of votes, while others said Cox's sincerity would be put to the test by his willingness to stand up for LGBTQ rights on Capitol Hill. The implication is that Cox has yet to reconcile his inclusivity within an exclusive party.

But Cox values patience, and he says people track on different timelines. Change isn't always expedient, and he points to leading Democratic figures—Obama and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton—both of whom sided against same-sex marriage as recently as 2012 before evolving. Working closely with Herbert, Cox says he sees a governor willing to cooperate with LGBTQ leaders.

"One of the things I love about working with the governor, unlike some politicians, he firmly believes in bringing people together and listening to people," he says. "I think people would be surprised to know how often he sits down with people like Sen. Dabakis and Equality Utah and listens, and tries to understand."

In 2015, Herbert signed an anti-discrimination housing law. It would be hard to argue that Herbert stuck out his neck when the bill crossed his desk, though. Deemed a compromise, it passed through the Legislature by a wide margin and was supported by the highly influential LDS church. The governor and lieutenant governor could pull significant weight if they choose to support city lawmakers who are preparing to start a conversation about public accommodation issues. A city ordinance could serve as the model for a statewide law.

Although Councilman Stan Penfold says no ordinance has been drafted, that route was a successful path for the eventual anti-discrimination law. State support would be a boon to the cause, Penfold suggests, as they begin that dialogue. "The last thing we want to do is adopt something that is then reversed by the state," he says.

After a tight convention, Herbert was resoundingly re-elected to represent the party in June and then coasted back into the governor's mansion in the November election. He will head the state's executive office for another four years, and Cox is likely to remain his lieutenant for that duration.

Cox says the epidemic of youth suicides needs to be addressed, and an unavoidable truth is that LGBTQ teens make up a glaring component.

Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams says, though he would welcome an initiative from the governor's office to address LGBTQ suicides, he's not aware of any yet.

"This is a true public health crisis, and we would like to see elected officials send an affirming message to young LGBTQ Utahns that they are a vital part of our state," he says in an email. "However, the message that LGBTQ youth most often receive from the state is that they are second-class citizens."

Nationwide, LGBTQ youths are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight, cisgender counterparts. And although Utah doesn't track data regarding LGBTQ suicides, statewide, suicide is the leading cause of death among Utahns age 10-17, according to the Utah Department of Health.

It's while reflecting on his own children that Cox remarks his generation—"the tail end of Gen X"—is starkly different than the yet-to-be-named generation of today's youth. Where the aged population are more likely to be leery of differences, young people aren't as bothered.

"Part of my transition had to do with my kids," he says, adding, "by and large, they don't see each other through that lens of 'different' or 'other.' ... My kids have always been really great on this. They see people are different and that's great. It makes the world a better place."

Scores of people expressed pride in the state after Cox's speech. And Cox's kids, ages 10-17, he reports, were among them.

In Dabakis' guesstimations, Cox has a bright future as a public figure and he bravely risked poll points last June. If the lieutenant governor someday seeks a more prestigious seat, LGBTQ ties could be fodder for political opponents, depending on the race.

Is Cox eyeing a higher office? He demurs.

"I have a much better life outside of this, and I look forward to returning to that life someday, but I've also said I believe in service and giving back," he says. "When the appropriate time comes, we'll sit down and evaluate and talk about things. If it feels like it's important to keep serving, we will. And if not, I can't wait to be done."

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