As the conference committee prepares to meet this morning to discuss differences between the House and Senate on HB74, they should be reminded of the extent to which homophobia has a prominent place in the state’s culture and history. Long before Matthew Shepherd, there was Lester Hunt.
As unseemly and even un-Christian as are recent political attacks on gays and lesbians, there is an even uglier Wyoming political history of the use of this tactic for political gain. As recent as during the lifetimes of most of the current legislators, a US Senator and former Governor of Wyoming was driven to suicide by politicians who understood the power of hate in the context of a person’s sexuality.
Lester C. Hunt of Lander was the Governor of Wyoming from 1943 to 1949 and served as a popular United States Senator from January 3, 1949 until his suicide on June 19, 1954. During his time in the Senate, Hunt distinguished himself as a courageous critic of Wisconsin senator Joseph R. McCarthy. His criticism of McCarthy's demagoguery made him a prime target in the 1954 election.
The year before his re-election campaign, Hunt's young son was arrested for soliciting sex from an undercover, male policeman. One account of this dark incident in Wyoming history reported, “Hunt, a Democrat elected in 1948, faced a tough fight to keep his seat in 1954. Republicans held only a one-vote majority in the Senate and saw the incumbent as a prime target. So avid were top GOP strategists to oust him that they fastened onto the arrest of his son. “Arrested, soliciting as a queer,” noted New Hampshire Sen. Styles Bridges, chair of the GOP campaign committee, when informed of the arrest by inside sources at the Morals Division of the D.C. police.”
Republicans reportedly delivered a blackmail demand ordering Hunt to retire from the Senate and not seek re-election. If Hunt refused, Wyoming media would be informed of his son’s homosexuality. This is the text of a report from then Washington DC columnist Drew Pearson disclosing the events:
DREW PEARSON ON THE WASHINGTON MERRYICO-ROUNb
(CQPYRIGHT, 1954, BY THF BELL SYNDICATE, I N C . 1
DREW PEARSON SAYS: (CAPS > SENATOR HUNT WAS THREATENED WITH PROSECUYT I C N OF HIS SON UNLESS HE WITHDREW F R O M - S E N A T E R A C E ) HUNT BROOfDED OVER SCr\"S MISFORTUNES) NEW PRESSURE .TECHNIQYES USED I N SENATE. CEND C A P S WASHINGTON.-SEN LESTER H U N T OF WYOMING, WHO ENDED HI S LIFE WITH A RIFLE BukEEIf L S Z bra& -&@ BEW --%3&I BLACKNAIL IN CONNECTION WITH H I S SONs
ON ONE OCCAS10h1, R E P U B L I C A N SEN* HERMAN WELKER OF IDAHO MAD SENT *WqRD TO HUNT THAT IF HE WOZnD NOT RON FOR RE-ELECTION, H I S SON, ARRESTED CN A MORALS CHARgE, WOULD NOT BE PROSECUTED
Senator Hunt acceded to the blackmail (what we’d now call a hate crime), announcing he would not seek reelection. A few days later, he shot himself to death at his desk in his Senate office. So you see, Wyoming does have a legacy of hate when it comes to this issue. Today we will choose whether to continue or to begin to overcome that legacy.
Among a few items of political memorabilia I have collected over the years is a note on which Senator Hunt wrote thoughts about George Washington’s Farewell Address. Apparently there was time in the US Congress when pothe timeliness of the first President's concern about threatening divisions among the Amercian people.
Washington was concerned then about the threat of regional differences. All these years later, the threat is different but just as ominous. If you slightly tweak the words of our first President by removing those words in parentheses, they aptly express a contemporary concern.
“One of the expedients of party to acquire influence (within particular districts) is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of others (districts). You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heart burnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.”