LGBTQ Agenda: A Republican and a Democrat talk about changing conservative minds in fight for equality

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday December 12, 2023
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Clockwise from left, moderator John Soto talked with Mesa Mayor John Giles and Equality Wyoming's Sara Burlingame about how to make progress on LGBTQ issues in red states. Photo: Screengrab via Zoom
Clockwise from left, moderator John Soto talked with Mesa Mayor John Giles and Equality Wyoming's Sara Burlingame about how to make progress on LGBTQ issues in red states. Photo: Screengrab via Zoom

Two changemakers from conservative parts of the country said that forging relationships across America's social and political divides is crucial to advancing the cause of LGBTQ equality.

The two made their remarks in a virtual forum put on as part of the Unity Summit, a two-day event by One Community Arizona. The forum, "How to Make Political Change without Fueling Extremism and Polarization," was hosted by Michael Soto, the current chief advocacy officer of One Community and featured John Giles, a Republican straight ally serving as the mayor of Mesa, Arizona, and Sara Burlingame, a queer woman who is a Democratic former state legislator in Wyoming and current executive director of Wyoming Equality.

Giles, who has been Mesa's mayor for nine years, revived a long-standing effort two years ago to support passage of a non-discrimination ordinance adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes in the Arizona city. The City Council passed the ordinance in March 2021 and it went into effect that June, during Pride Month.

A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and father of five children, Giles said the non-discrimination ordinance didn't pass at first because of opposition from conservatives.

"I was full of vim and vigor at the beginning of the term to do this, and we were this close to pulling the trigger, and the religious right folks who fought us came in with polling and said, 'If you do this, we'll file a referendum and we'll vote to repeal this' — and they were right," Giles said.

So Giles decided to meet with the different groups directly about why they were opposed to the ordinance.

"It took a few years. I went to a lot of church meetings and it took building some trust in the religious right and the folks who were interested in fighting it either became allies or said, 'You know we don't like it, but we won't fight it,'" he said. "That was ultimately the winning formula in Mesa. ... With LGBTQ issues, there's always bogeymen that are used. They'll paint horrible scenarios and scare people into not supporting the right thing to do."

Giles said he had to balance the concerns of religious conservatives with those of LGBTQ groups, some of which wanted a stronger ordinance than the one that was passed.

"We came up with an ordinance that's progressive and really very effective," Giles said. "It's a very good ordinance, but it still didn't get a seal of approval from the most progressive LGBTQ organizations."

According to a March 2021 article on, home of the East Valley Tribune, there were some exclusions to the ordinance, including the federal government and state agencies, religious, public and charter schools and religious organizations "when furthering (the) organization's purpose."

Businesses with five or fewer employees were also exempt, the online site noted. A first draft had included all businesses.

The effort to have the city approve such an ordinance dates back nearly a decade. Giles had tried previously but that effort faltered and he worked on the issue before winning reelection in 2020, East Valley online reported.


Burlingame said that nonetheless it was better than what had been the case before, with no protections for LGBTQ people. Burlingame described herself as an "incrementalist."

"I also believe in the ecosystem of advocacy and I know I have my role to play and I'm not fit to be a revolutionary," Burlingame said. "Revolutionaries have to have a binary — here are the good guys and the bad guys — and in my heart I'll never believe it; it doesn't feel true to me."

For example, Burlingame, who did not grow up LDS and is not a member of the church, described herself as coming from the Jell-O Belt, another name for the Mormon corridor, that part of the intermountain West where a large proportion of the nation's LDS members live. She said she's had a lot of friends hurt deeply by the LDS church but that ultimately "I love the church. I love the people. I love so much about it."

"We're humans," she added. "We exist in this place of complexity and if we can name it we can do better and work together."

Burlingame's remarks emphasized the importance of breaking bread. The physical act of eating together creates trust and breaks down barriers, she said.

"Most theories of change are somewhat academic," she said. "This is our theory of change — we believe in sharing meals whenever possible and loving each other as sincerely as we can. That's it. That's the whole thing."

But that's only about opening the door, she explained.

"I didn't so dwell [on trust] when I was first coming on at Wyoming Equality because I thought 'great, we shared a meal, we bought coffee, now vote the way I'd like you to vote,'" she said, adding that "letting people become comfortable" is necessary before trust can develop.

Giles said that seeing things in a binary way prevents progress; for example, a lot of LGBTQ people are religious, even though some religious people reject them.

"There's not 'the church' and 'the LGBTQ community.' The church is the LGBTQ community," he said. "LGBTQ people are people of faith, to a large extent. There's some who've been scarred, but there's a huge Venn diagram."

Soto, a native Mesan, said, "I wish we could clone you both and put you in every single community in our country."

Burlingame had criticisms of both the left- and right-wing parts of the political spectrum. She said sometimes the "extremely left side" has a sense of "excoriating purity" that prevents the conversations from happening that lead to individual change.

"I'm absolutely supportive of people who hold a very strict line and do this advocacy in a different way; it's just not ours," she said. "I recognize there's got to be some sticks for the carrots as well, but we're the most conservative state in the country. Our qualified [that is, statewide] electeds are all Republicans. Some states have a supermajority; we have a hyper-supermajority."

Indeed, 71% of registered Wyoming voters were Republicans last year according to Cowboy State Daily. Only 15% are Democrats.

But not all red states are alike, Burlingame said, adding that Wyoming has a strong libertarian streak that has led it to becoming the only red state to reject a ban on gender-affirming care.

On the other hand, Burlingame said the level of vitriol against the LGBTQ community is tearing the social fabric. She described being at a school board meeting banning books just days ago.

"The school board [that was] elected was about making sure those books were banned," Burlingame said. "It was a foregone conclusion, and still a mob showed up. They yelled at kids, they booed kids. The lack of civility was so shocking from those people — some of whom are considered to have status in our community — and so the important thing to remember is the imp of civility. There's nothing more radical and hard to do than to maintain civility and neighborliness at times when violence is on the rise."

Burlingame said keeping the guardrails of civility up in the coming election year will be important.

"There are strong forces encouraging people to hate each other's guts, and in very specific, targeted ways," she said. "If someone says something that denigrates the dignity of queer people, or people of faith, you don't need to do a deep dive. Say 'I haven't found that to be true,' or 'I don't think that's kind.' That kind of restores the boundaries."

She also warned against the threat posed by people who would flout constitutional norms.

"Saying 'I'm here to rally for the process' is one of the unsexiest things you can say ... but the process is actually salvific. It's 2024. It's election day and what would we have wished we'd done? What conversation did we wish we'd been brave enough to say?" she said of the upcoming election.

LGBTQ Agenda is an online column that appears weekly. Got a tip on queer news? Contact John Ferrannini at [email protected]

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