Walters: Queer Youth Meet the Governor | Off Message

Walters: Queer Youth Meet the Governor


Gov. Phil Scott speaking with Alex Escaja-Heiss of South Burlington and Nathan DeGroot of Worcester - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Gov. Phil Scott speaking with Alex Escaja-Heiss of South Burlington and Nathan DeGroot of Worcester
Gov. Phil Scott spent a half hour Thursday morning in a freewheeling Q&A session with several dozen LGBTQ students. The event was noteworthy for its matter-of-factness.

Less than 20 years ago, then-governor Howard Dean signed a civil unions bill behind closed doors because the issue was so politically fraught. Now, a Republican governor meets in the Statehouse with a roomful of youths from the LGBTQ community and thinks nothing of it.

"We all evolve, and it's important to evolve," said Scott, who had yet to enter politics when civil unions became law. "It's not as though I was anti-anything 20 years ago, but I wasn't as educated as I could be. I just didn't understand. The way you understand is by listening."

And the kids gave him an earful, asking questions about prison conditions for trans inmates, suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth, and the inadequacy of health and sex education in their schools. He didn't always have a direct answer, but he listened. And the teens were unafraid to restate their questions when they weren't satisfied with his response.

Nathan DeGroot of Worcester, a student at Montpelier High School, asked Scott about the administration's proposal for a 925-bed prison facility, and noted that trans inmates are often mistreated behind bars. Scott responded with a detailed account of the idea and noted that it was merely a proposal subject to change — but he made no special mention of minority inmates.

Similarly, when asked about high suicide rates among LGBTQ youth, Scott resorted to boilerplate language about the mental health system and the need for more counseling services.

A question about inadequate school programs in health and sex education prompted a lengthy conversation. One student noted that "teachers don't feel comfortable talking about it." When Scott asked if others felt this way, a resounding "Yes!" filled the room.

Scott didn't handle the question very well; he talked of Vermont's declining school population and demographic challenges, and asked if the students "had talked to the NEA," known formally as the National Education Association, the union that represents Vermont teachers. Seemed a bit indirect. He could have suggested their local school boards.

But again, to see a governor earnestly field questions about concepts like "queer sex education" would have been unthinkable not too long ago.

The event was part of 2018 Queer Youth Leadership Day, organized by Outright Vermont, an advocacy group on issues concerning LGBTQ youth. Prior to their meeting with the governor, several students testified before the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee in favor of H.333, a House-passed bill that would require single-user toilets in any publicly accessible buildings to be designated as gender-neutral. 

After the testimony, all five members of the committee indicated their support for the bill. And when Scott was asked if he would sign it, he said, "Oh, sure."

Just like that. No big deal.