Longform

Over the Rainbow: Matt Salmon's Son Wants to Make a Name For Himself in Republican Politics -- Only He's Gay

Growing up in the 1990s in conservative east Mesa, Matt knew he wasn't like most other boys. He didn't know how to express it, and he wasn't sure what it was, but he knew he felt bad about it.

He was popular, attractive, and athletic. He did well in school. But still, there was an ever-present guilt and sense of shame. He blamed himself for disappointing his parents, even when he wasn't.

Once, he accidentally found out about a surprise party his mother planned for his 12th birthday. He'd been peeking over a classmate's shoulder to see what he was reading and saw the invitation to his own party.

He was so upset that he ran home and threw himself down on the floor, sobbing. "I found out about the surprise party! I ruined it!"

As he recalls it, his mother shrugged and said, "You should have just not told me."

Two years later, when Matt was 14, he realized how he was different and why he felt so much shame. He told his mother something else she probably wishes he hadn't. "Mom, I'm gay."

It's difficult for most kids to come out to their parents, but in this case, it was particularly hard, because Matt's full name is Matthew Rae Salmon. He is the youngest son of conservative Republican Matthew James Salmon, former Arizona state senator, gubernatorial candidate, and U.S. congressman, and a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Both Matt J. Salmon and his wife, Nancy, have supported anti-gay legislation over the years, including bans on same-sex marriage and denying gays the right to adopt. (No one in Matt R. Salmon's immediate family responded to interview requests for this story.) His parents' views couldn't be further from Matt R. Salmon's present hopes and dreams. He recently came out to the public. He wants to have a husband and children — and a political career.

He might just be on his way to all three. Salmon lives with Kent Flake, who happens to be the second cousin of conservative Mormon Republican U.S. Congressman Jeff Flake. And Salmon just became president of the Arizona Log Cabin Republicans, a group of Republicans that advocates for gay rights and lobbies for sympathetic candidates. He says he has no plans to run for office — he's pursuing a career in osteopathic medicine. But you never know.

There's a rich history of gay Republicans in Arizona politics. They include former state legislator Steve May, former U.S. House of Representatives member Jim Kolbe, state legislator Ed Poelstra, and until recently, former Tempe mayor Neil Giuliano, and Phoenix City Councilman Tom Simplot.

Even two of the most famous Republican politicians and presidential candidates in Arizona history — Senator John McCain and the late Senator Barry Goldwater — have pro-gay family connections. In McCain's case, it's daughter Meghan and wife Cindy, who participated in the NOH8 photo campaign protesting California's Proposition 8 same-sex marriage ban. Senator McCain himself voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment, saying the decision should be left to each state, but he has maintained his opposition to gay marriage and been ambiguous about repealing the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

"Mr. Conservative" Barry Goldwater, however, blasted military bans on gays in 1993, saying, "You don't have to be straight to shoot straight." Goldwater's grandson, Ty Ross Goldwater, is gay, and Ty says his grandfather was never anything but supportive of him. Barry Goldwater vocally came out in favor of gay rights in the 1990s, part of a wider "left turn" that angered many social conservatives.

But never has the Arizona gay Republican conundrum hit so close to home, or created such a familial contradiction — not publicly, anyway — as it has for Matt R. Salmon.

As a U.S. congressman, Matt's father voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, which federally defined marriage as between one man and one woman. He also voted "yes" on a failed bill in 1999 that would have banned gays from being able to adopt in the District of Columbia.

In 2006, when Matt's father was chairman of the Arizona GOP, his mother, Nancy Salmon, was president of the state chapter of United Families International, a "pro-life, pro-family" nonprofit. As UFI's local president, Nancy Salmon helped raise $50,000 for the campaign for Proposition 107, which sought to ban same-sex marriage, civil unions, and domestic partnerships in Arizona. It was defeated at the polls.

The Salmons have been so vocally anti-gay over the years that some local politicians, frankly, rejoiced when one of their four kids came out.

"There were a lot of us 10 years ago that prayed one of Matt Salmon's kids would turn out gay," says Steve May. "Not because we wanted to cause any problems or pain for anybody, but because we believe that gay children will change the hearts and minds of their parents."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea