Sen. Mike Enzi apologized Tuesday for comments he made to Greybull High School students last week after being asked about Wyoming’s gay and lesbian community.
Responding to a question about improving the lives of the LGBT community in Wyoming, Enzi said people in Wyoming could be anything they wanted as long as they “don’t push it in somebody’s face,” according to an audio recording of the event.
“I know a guy that wears a tutu and goes to the bars on Friday night and is always surprised that he gets in fights,” Enzi told the students. “Well, he kind of asks for it a little bit. That’s the way he winds up with that kind of problem.”
The statement was criticized by the Wyoming Democrats and LGBT rights advocates, who called on the Republican senator to apologize.
Enzi released two statements Tuesday. In the first, he spoke generally about tolerance. In the second, released after media reports of his comments began to spread nationally, he apologized.
“None of us is infallible and I apologize to anyone who has taken offense,” Enzi said in a statement. “No offense was intended. Quite the opposite in fact, and so I ask for your understanding as well.”
“No person, including LGBT individuals, should feel unsafe in their community,” the statement continued. “My message was intended specifically to be about promoting respect and tolerance toward each other. I hope if people look at the entirety of my speech, they will understand that. I regret a poor choice of words during part of my presentation.”
Word of Enzi’s comments began to spread Tuesday morning, after the Wyoming Democratic Party posted an abbreviated version of them on its Facebook page. The post encouraged people to call Enzi’s office and tell the senator his statements were “hurtful and divisive.”
Enzi’s office did not answer directly when asked Tuesday whether the Democrats were quoting the senator accurately. But Greybull Standard Editor Mathew Burciaga, who was at the Thursday event, told the Star-Tribune that Enzi did “say something along those lines.” Hours later, the Standard posted a story on the event, along with an audio recording and transcript.
The student had asked what work Enzi and his colleagues were doing to improve the lives of LGBT people in Wyoming. She also asked how he planned to help Wyoming live up to its name as the Equality State.
Enzi began by responding that federal law can’t solve every problem and that what was needed was civility between people.
“We always say in Wyoming you can be just about anything you want to be as long as you don’t push it in somebody’s face,” Enzi told the students, before giving the example of the man in the tutu.
In a statement, the Matthew Shepard Foundation said Enzi’s comments “are exactly the kind of hateful remarks we are working against in Wyoming and beyond.”
“To tell a person that they are ‘asking for it’ is the same kind of harmful rhetoric people use to disqualify the claims of sexual assault victims,” the foundation said. “It’s the same kind of rhetoric that keeps up to 61 percent of hate crime victims from reporting because they are afraid of not being believed while also having to be fearful of being re-victimized by those in power, who should be defending their rights.”
Enzi was attempting in his comments to stress the importance of respecting other people, his spokesman Max D’Onofrio said in an email to the Star-Tribune. Enzi told the students that people learning to live together had a more lasting effect than federal actions.
“He talked about how many Wyoming folks take a live and let live approach to life, but we need to be conscious that everyone may not react the same way to differing value and belief systems. He advocates nothing but respect and civil treatment for members of the LGBT community,” D’Onofrio said.
Wyoming Democratic Party Chairman Joe Barbuto said Enzi should apologize to the student who asked the question.
“Senator Enzi’s comment was not just inappropriate, it was ugly and indicative of a kind of backwards thinking that has no place in today’s society,” Barbuto said in a statement.
In his first statment on Tuesday, Enzi said he did not believe anyone should be bullied or attacked because of their beliefs.
“Our live and let live approach is one of the great aspects of our state,” he said. “It is important that our students learn that the importance of respecting all people and how it is incumbent on those in the communities we live in to treat others as you would want to be treated.”
Enzi has served in the Senate since 1997 and is the former mayor of Gillette. In Wyoming, he’s known for keeping a low-key profile, generally avoiding the spotlight or controversial subjects.