SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch called for unwavering love and support for LGBT youth who experience high suicide rates as victims of bullying, discrimination and family estrangement in a somewhat surprising Senate speech this week from the retiring Republican who has long been an opponent of same-sex marriage.
Hatch said Wednesday that the suicide epidemic is especially acute among LGBT teens as he spoke in favor of a proposal that would create a national suicide prevention hotline.
"No one should ever feel less because of their gender identity or sexual orientation," said Hatch, according to a recording of the speech. "LGBT youth deserve our unwavering love and support. They deserve our validation and the assurance that not only is there a place for them in this society, but that it is far better off because of them."
Hatch last week applauded the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. In 1988, he called the Democratic Party the "the party of homosexuals" in a derisive comment he later said he regretted.
In recent years, however, he's begun to carve out a more sympathetic position toward gays, lesbians and transgender people that's similar to the tone now taken by leaders of his religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Utah-based religion of 16 million worldwide members has held firm to its opposition of gay marriage and homosexual activity while trying to foster an empathetic stance toward LGBTQ people.
Last year, Hatch defended transgender people after President Donald Trump Tweeted that he would not "accept or allow" transgender people to serve in the U.S. military.
"These young people need us — and we desperately need them," Hatch said Wednesday. "We need their light to illuminate the richness and diversity of God's creations. We need the grace, beauty and brilliance they bring to the world."
His remarks come a week after a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that suicide rates inched up in nearly every U.S. state from 1999 through 2016.
In Utah, the number of yearly suicides for youth ages 10 to 17 has spiked to alarming levels in the last five years — more than double the average from the previous decade.
Troy Williams, executive director of the LGBT support group Equality Utah, said it was heartening to hear a senior GOP leader speaking out in support of inclusion for gay, lesbian and transgender youth. He said Hatch has been fair-minded on LGBT issues for some time, but said the speech was unlike anything the senator had previously said.
"It's a tremendous evolution," Williams said. "I believe his heart has been moved."
Hatch said people should not just "tolerate, but love," no matter if a person is a religious conservative or secular liberal. LGBT youth deserve acceptance for who they are, which he said wasn't a choice but how they were born.
"If there were ever a time to show our LGBT friends just how much we love them, it is now in a world where millions suffer in silence," Hatch said. "We owe it to each other to love loudly."