By Ramsey Scott
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — State Sen. Lynn Hutchings has come under fire for comments she allegedly made to a group of local high school students comparing protections for LGBTQ people to protections for pedophiles and those who practice bestiality.
Officials with Wyoming Equality, a Cheyenne-based civil rights group, said a group of 10 students from Cheyenne’s Central High met Feb. 1 with Hutchings. The students, who are members of Central’s Gay-Straight Alliance, wanted to encourage Hutchings to support House Bill 230, which would have extended protections to LGBTQ employees from discrimination and harassment while at work.
During that conversation with Hutchings, who represents the area of Cheyenne that includes Central High, the group alleges Hutchings said: “If my sexual orientation was to have sex with all of the men in there and I had sex with all of the women in there and then they brought their children and I had sex with all of them and then brought their dogs in and I had sex with them, should I be protected for my sexual orientation?” Hutchings said.
Wyoming Equality sent a letter to Senate President Drew Perkins, R-Casper, dated Feb. 4 outlining its complaint against Hutchings. In that letter, the group said Hutchings interrupted students as they tried to clarify her comments and then tried to hug the students after the discussion.
“It is our understanding that while the state Legislature’s anti-harassment policy mentions no protected classes, including sexual orientation and gender identity, Senator Hutchings’ behavior was unacceptable and inexcusable,” the letter said. “Fourteen- and fifteen-year old high school students wishing to engage with the legislative process should not have been confronted with the comments made by Senator Hutchings.
“Those students, some of which identify as LGBTQ, were deeply hurt and disturbed that they were compared to acts of bestiality and pedophilia. The students’ sentiment was exacerbated, especially after Senator Hutchings hypothetically recounted the idea of sexually engaging with children, then physically engaged with the students.”
Hutchings, who has been outspoken in her opposition to protections for LGBTQ residents, hurriedly walked past reporters Monday morning and said she wouldn’t speak on the issue.
She had made previous comments to other news outlets saying she had only asked what the students meant by sexual orientation, only used a hypothetical situation to make a point and had received death threats about her comments.
In a brief interview with WyoFile.com, Hutchings reportedly said the story of her comments, first reported over the weekend, is not true.
“All weekend long, from all over the country, people have been calling me,” she told WyoFile. “This is vicious. It’s life threatening.”
Hutchings also suggested she would take legal action, saying, “This has gone legal now.”
Democratic Party leaders: Hutchings should resign
On Monday, Wyoming Democratic Party leaders called on Hutchings to resign, calling the senator’s comments “indefensible, insensitive and repugnant.”
“Her remarks were not appropriate for any audience, but that she said this to children is especially revolting. It shows a clear lack of good judgment,” Wyoming Democratic Party Chairman Joe Barbuto said in a prepared statement. “Senate District 5 deserves a senator who they can trust to behave and speak in a manner that upholds the dignity of the office and reflects an understanding that every person deserves to be treated with respect. Lynn Hutchings is now incapable of providing that level of representation. She must resign immediately.”
The Senate Democratic Caucus said they couldn’t comment because all three members sit on the Legislature’s Management Council and would be a part of any official hearing against Hutchings if a complaint made it that far. The House Democratic Caucus referred to Barbuto’s statement.
Perkins; Senate Majority Floor Leader Dan Dockstader, R-Afton; and Senate Vice President Ogden Dris-kill, R-Devils Tower, issued a joint statement Monday afternoon related to the comments. It followed a statement from Perkins earlier in the day that only highlighted the diverse opinions of members and constituents.
“In Wyoming, we believe in respect, civility and compassion,” the GOP legislative leaders’ statement read. “Here in the Wyoming Legislature, it is no different. We take the concerns raised on behalf of these students very seriously. Absolutely no one should be made to feel dismissed, disrespected or degraded.
“Let us be clear, the message from the Wyoming Senate is this – all Wyoming citizens are welcome here. We want to hear from you. We need to hear from you. We are blessed to have a citizen Legislature in Wyoming, and that means the voices of every single person should be heard and considered.
“In the coming days, we will continue through the process designed to properly vet and address complaints filed against members. Both Senator Hutchings and these students deserve fair consideration and respect as we work to address this matter.”
In December, Hutchings testified in favor of the Management Council removing any protections that explicitly forbade harassment in the Legislature based on protected characteristics, including race, religion, age, sexual orientation or gender identity.
She also has spoken against legislation in previous sessions that would have extended protections to the LGBTQ community, including in 2013 when Hutchings was a member of the House. During the debate in 2013 on a bill that would have extended domestic partnerships to same-sex couples, Hutchings said she was offended when LGBTQ residents compared their struggles to the battle for civil rights in the 1960s.
She also said at the time that homosexuality can be dangerous and referred to AIDS as “gay-related immune deficiency, or GRID,” a term more commonly used to describe the disease in the 1980s as an example of those dangers.
“Being black is innocuous, very harmless,” she said in 2013. “Homosexual behavior has been shown to be harmful to body, mind and spirit.”
Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, sponsored HB 230 this session and urged Management Council to keep the protected classes language in the Legislature’s rules. He said he believed Perkins would investigate the incident thoroughly and work with Senate leadership on a resolution.
“It does reinforce the strong need for Management Council to revisit this policy, as this is an issue not going away,” Zwonitzer said Monday. “I think it exemplifies the need that we need to hold – as I said in the Management Council meeting – our legislators to higher standards of thought and conduct and speech than the general citizenry. I think Sen. Perkins, as much as any senator, understands this issue. He was a co-sponsor on HB 230, about the ongoing issues of freedom of religion and free speech that are associated to this issue.
“I do think it’s important people speak their minds, and that helps inform their constituencies of their true thoughts on the matter.”
Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr reacted to Hutchings’ statements Friday in a tweet, saying, “Shame on you, Sen. Hutchings. We deserve better. Our youth deserve better. Bestiality is equivalent to being gay? Really?”
Orr has pushed for protections for LGBTQ residents as a lobbyist, and recently announced full discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer city employees.
In a follow-up interview Monday, Orr said it was disheartening to hear Hutchings’ comments to a group of students who were trying to participate in the legislative process. She said she trusted the Legislature would take the issue seriously and investigate any complaint.
“It’s unfortunate. I certainly think that our City Council in Cheyenne might very well be taking up the nondiscrimination issue,” Orr said. “Maybe we can put some good publicity over bad.”
Senate president: Lawmakers have freedom of speech
Before the Republican majority in the Senate issued a joint statement, Perkins said Monday morning he couldn’t comment on Hutchings and Wyoming Equality’s letter. But he spoke about the confidential process of a complaint being filed against a senator.
When a complaint comes in, Perkins said the director of the Legislative Service Office conducts interviews with the complainant and the lawmakers. After that investigation, the report goes to legislative leaders for a decision.
“We look at the law, and we also look at the Constitution,” Perkins said. “(Lawmakers) have their freedom of speech here. They don’t lose that when they’re elected. And further, when they’re in legislative session, particularly if it’s debate about a bill or other issues on the bill, they’re protected by the debate clause.”
Perkins said while certain language isn’t protected, like inciting violence or screaming “fire” in a crowded theater, the First Amendment rights of lawmakers to speak their mind shouldn’t be subject to punishment.
“Whether or not a person finds the speech of a legislator or anybody else offensive doesn’t necessarily rise to the level that it’s not protected speech,” Perkins continued. “From my perspective, that’s one of the main considerations you have is the language in any statement, (and the question) is the speech protected speech? Is it protected under the First Amendment? If it is protected speech, or it’s protected by the speech-and-debate clause, then I think you have to tread very, very carefully.”
While lawmakers are subject to rules of decorum while on the chamber floor, Perkins said there is more latitude when they are out in public or in a private discussion. And when it comes to censuring, he said he believed the Legis-lature should err on the side of allowing lawmakers to speak their mind when they are in a private conversation.
“I think senators have an obligation to uphold their oath that they take when they’re in office,” he said. “And, ultimately, the voters will decide if they held themselves to a higher standard.
“There are consequences for your speech, and there’s consequences for elected officers’ speech, and usually it’s at the ballot box.”
Perkins said he wanted people know the Legislature is a place for the free and open exchange of ideas, and some ideas are distasteful to some.