Because in ultra-conservative Utah he came out in favor of a variety of gay and lesbian rights laws and civil unions in a time (2009) when such a position was not being taken by Republican governors in the United States.
Huntsman and his wife, MaryKaye, both spoke at the fundraiser in the Salt Palace. Huntsman met with reporters before the dinner.
Huntsman said he was glad to address the group, adding that perhaps he and MaryKaye were able to sell a few more tickets.
Is Utah changing, he was asked, on gay civil rights?
“Well, look at tonight,” he said. Eleven years ago Equality Utah held their first fundraiser in the back room of a Denny’s restaurant, he said.
Thursday night’s sellout was over 2,200, with extra tables brought in the last day for the $125 per plate event – or at least $275,000 gross.
But while he favors civil unions, in answer to a UtahPolicy question Huntsman said that if he were president he wouldn’t ask Congress for a federal civil union national law.
“I’m a federalist,” said Huntsman. And the question of civil unions, or outright marriage, between gay people should be left up to the individual states.
“Every state should decide its destiny on marriage, because there is a religious component and there’s a secular component.”
But if civil unions and other gay rights are really civil rights, then why should there be voting rights for African-Americans and other minorities on a federal level, and not civil unions?
As all things in America, Huntsman said, civil unions will take time.
The Emancipation Proclamation was adopted in 1864, and it took 100 years to guarantee voting rights for blacks, he added.
“You arrive somewhere were people fell you can have fairness, and that’s the how the great deliberative Republic that we live in works,” he added.
Certainly the crowd at the fundraiser wasn’t looking to quibble about the Huntsmans’ active support of gay and lesbian rights.
They cheered, stomped and stood up for the couple.
“It was a great leap to even talk about civil unions” back in 2009, said Huntsman. Still, he will not be backing gay marriage now.
“What is important is people having a conversation about inclusiveness, and about fairness and about equality under the law,” he told reporters.
“And if we can achieve that – it is hard to know what the wrapping will be like – what the definition of the term happens to be, then each state may end up doing it a little differently. But the end point out to be equality under the law.”
I have to say that while I have heard MaryKaye Huntsman give a few speeches, Thursday night her talk was more impassioned than her husband’s.
Frankly, I thought it was a hell of a speech, as she recounted her and other’s efforts to bring compassion and insight to thousands of Utah’s youth with a story of a Chicago boy who, over the first four days of school, was driven to suicide by the taunting and abuse of other students who believed he was gay.
“We can do better,” she said.
“We must do better. Love more unconditionally than conditionally. Promote human dignity. Speak for those who don’t have a voice. No one must walk silently, alone.
“One day there will be a huge chorus for unity and equality for all.”
Huntsman was asked by reporters what his story was concerning discrimination against gay people.
He said that he had a neighbor whose partner had lost both his legs, yet the man couldn’t visit him in the hospital (at all hours) because he was not officially family. “Yet he got stuck with the bills.”
A good friend’s son died, yet his partner couldn’t visit the man in the emergency room.
“After I came out – so to speak – for civil unions,” Huntsman said he got a lot of mail. Much of it nice, supportive, “and makes you proud.”
But he got one hate letter, not against him, but against gays. He kept that letter in his top draw of his governor’s desk. And every now and then he would take it out and read it over, just to remind him “how hateful some people can be.”
“For the first time I was kind of thinking about someone out there who is dealing with sexual identity, and dealing in a family context, dealing in a school, in a workplace – and struggling.”
He said he would like to believe, and does, that if Abraham Lincoln were alive today he “would be the first in line” to speak for equality for all people under the law, something he himself believes in.
Said Huntsman: “You are not perfect at the beginning of the journey. But if you keep your ears open, and your heart open, you learn as you go along, and you evolve.”
Huntsman thanked Equality Utah and the award that was presented to he and MaryKaye for their work and caring about all people.
“I can’t think of any award (given to both of them) that would make us more proud than this one.”