A Republican who represents Montana in the U.S. House told the lesbian Democrat challenging him for his seat he doesn’t mind “if you want to be a lesbian,” implying he believes being gay is a choice.
Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) made the remarks Wednesday night during a debate in response to a question from an audience member about what the candidates would do to protect LGBT rights.
Denise Juneau, who’s gay, quipped the question was an “awesome” one for her. The way she would accomplish that goal: “Number one, get elected.”
Juneau, who’s currently Montana’s state superintendent of public instruction, also invoked the history of Montana, a state that elected a woman to Congress before women were guaranteed the right to vote in the United States, and her Native American heritage.
“We elected a woman before women had the right to vote,” Juneau said. “A century later it’s time for another woman to serve in congress. We also have never had an American Indian woman serve in Congress from anywhere in the country. That’s what can happen this election cycle when you elect me. We also have not ever had an openly gay federal candidate. Those are all bonuses when Montanans elect me, and representation matters.”
Based on her experience observing the state legislature, Juneau said “representation matters” because when different kinds of people are elected new policy is discussed and stereotypes are broken down.
“That’s what I’ve done as state superintendent – is made sure every student who steps through the doors of a public school, and this is the work of our local school boards across the state too, are safe, protected and have safe learning spaces,” Juneau said. “I’m an advocate for that and I’ll continue to be an advocate for all Montanans when I get elected.”
Zinke invoked the Constitution in his response and suggested he supports freedom of expression and religion.
“And so I do support you – if you want to be lesbian, you want to be Muslim, you want to be whatever,” Zinke said. “It doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to me. And it doesn’t matter in Montana and it doesn’t really matter in this election because Montanans generally aren’t that way.”
The audience can be heard booing Zinke, although based on the audio it’s not clear if that’s for saying he supports the candidate or for erroneously implying being gay is choice.
“As a military officer it didn’t matter to me the religious or political affiliation of the person next to me,” Zinke continued. “What matters was the quality of the person – whether or not you were dedicated to the mission and whether you loved your country. That’s what matters in America and that’s what makes America so strong. Our diversity in message, our diversity in thought. But our unity as an American, because we are American first.”
Also on stage was libertarian candidate Rick Breckenridge, who said Juneau’s words means she would be welcome in his party, although “specialized rights” aren’t necessary.
“The freedom of expression that we’ve had in this country has been remarkable, and the way that we’ve accepted ideas foreign to maybe our upbringing has helped make us who we are today,” Breckenridge said. “So do we need a special law? No. The Constitution protects everybody’s rights equally, not specialized rights.”
Zinke’s views are reflected in his abysmal record on LGBT rights in Congress. In the Human Rights Campaign’s most recent congressional scorecard, which was issued Friday, Zinke scored “0.” Among other things, he didn’t vote in favor of amendments to protect President Obama’s executive order against anti-LGBT workplace discrimination and isn’t a co-sponsor of the Equality Act.
The U.S. House seat may be in play on Election Day. The Juneau campaign made public an internal Harstad Strategic Research poll this week finding her just three points behind Zinke. However, an internal survey from Moore Information made public by Zinke gave him a much wider 11-point lead in the race.
Brandon Lorenz, spokesperson for HRC, lambasted Zinke for his response.
“Ryan Zinke couldn’t be more disconnected from reality to make the offensive suggestion that being LGBTQ is a choice,” Lorenz said. “His comments are as out of touch as his voting record, given that he has repeatedly voted against protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination while in Congress.”