Confessions of a Gay, Right-Wing Mormon

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Jim May had met a Peace Corps volunteer at a party in the early 1980s. The volunteer had been in Paraguay, where he discovered herbal teas and a plant called stevia, which can be used as a sweetener. Jim bought farmland and a manufacturing plant in Paraguay and began shipping the products to the U.S. He found that one of the teas, mate (rhymes with "latte"), was popular among Mormons because it contains a natural stimulant similar to caffeine.

The business never made much money. Steve, who stocked shelves and sold the product door-to-door as a kid, always swore he'd never join the family business. But Wisdom of the Ancients was in trouble in 1995, and Steve needed a job.

Jim paid Steve $5 an hour, and let his son put his college economics classes to use. Steve laughs, recalling those early days. His dad believed so strongly in the product, he figured it would simply sell itself. Steve put computers in the office, hired new sales people and reined in his dad, the dreamer.

"The first time I went down to Paraguay, I'm like, 'We have fucking 12 tons of [tea] bark in this place, and I can't sell it in a hundred years!' And that's plus all the crap that's back here," he says, gesturing toward the warehouse behind the Wisdom of the Ancients office in Tempe. "I'm like, 'What the hell are you doing?'"

He says his father sheepishly replied, "Well, what if we get a big order?"
Shortly after his return to Arizona, May hooked up with a college acquaintance, Paul Quinn.

Quinn, who is also gay, had a college experience far removed from May's. While May was attending church and playing soldier, Quinn was battling Claremont McKenna administrators over the inclusion of "sexual preference" in the college's antidiscrimination standards. Ironically, officials refused to formally prohibit discrimination based on sexual preference because the college feared it would lose its ROTC status. Quinn prevailed; the story even made the New York Times.

Quinn left Claremont McKenna after his sophomore year and ended his brief foray into gay activism. He met up with May in 1995 when the two learned they were both living in the Valley; Quinn teaches sign language at Arizona State University.

Although there had never been any attraction before, Steve and Paul fell for each other. Quinn was sure it was short-term; May had applied for a Rhodes scholarship that would have taken him abroad. When he was rejected, the relationship got more intense.

Then May dropped the bomb: He wanted to run for office.
"When we started dating seriously, I had no idea what he was going to do," says Quinn, who only grudgingly approves of the spotlight he and May find themselves in.

Quinn is a quiet type who says May has taught him everything he knows about politics. Quinn hates the social aspect of the political game, but never considered leaving May or discouraging his candidacies.

"He's a gem," Quinn says of May. "He is one of those people who is bound to do this."

Neither knew what the cost would be.

When he decided it was time to run for office, Steve May did the natural thing. He called an old friend, a politician he admired, and asked for advice. In this case, the friend was then-state senator Tom Patterson, a conservative Republican from May's neighborhood. Patterson encouraged May to challenge Senator Chris Cummiskey, a Democrat, in Legislative District 25 in central Phoenix.

Patterson didn't know May was gay. And May didn't know that District 25 happens to be the one legislative district in Arizona where being gay can actually work to a politician's advantage. For most of this decade, District 25 pols have won by appealing to the district's relatively large, politically active gay community, most of whom happen to be Democrats.

So the 1996 race pitted Steve May--closeted homosexual, conservative Republican--against Chris Cummiskey--heterosexual but yet the darling of the district's gay community.

Jeff Ofstedahl, who was then general manager of Echo Magazine, a gay publication, explains, "Steve wasn't gay enough for the gay district, and he was too gay for the Republicans."

Once May figured out that the district had a strong gay power base, he came out quietly to some gay leaders. But he guarded his privacy, refusing to let Quinn move into his condo and hiding their relationship from Republican party leaders.

"I was still convinced that you could not be gay and have a career in politics. I thought that I would have to make a choice," May says. "I was even, at that point, thinking I could just marry a woman, do my political life and be married to a woman, no big deal."

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.