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.
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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."
But there's little chance Matt will change his parents' stance on gay rights. His entire family is not only conservative, but they're devoutly religious, with roots in the Mormon Church that date back to the 1850s. Matt struggled to accept his homosexuality as much anyone.
Salmon's future had been mapped out for him, and for years, he tried not to be gay. He prayed, fasted, repented, and attended therapy. None of it stopped his attractions to men, and for a long time, he says he felt "doomed to Hell."
He was conflicted politically, too. He'd been raised in a family and a religion opposed to gay rights; the idea that homosexuality was wrong was so ingrained in him that even at age 18 — four years after he'd come out to his mom — he voted "yes" in 2006 on Proposition 107, the proposed same-sex marriage ban his mother championed.
Many Republican politicians, including Kolbe and Giuliano, had to launch their careers from the closet, coming out only after years in office. But Matt Salmon is already out — out of the closet, out of the Mormon Church, and out to change the face of a political party increasingly dominated by the religious right.
Being out has come at a cost. His relationship with his parents is strained. He's left the church in which he was raised, and his siblings stopped speaking to him for a while.
Salmon has a confident energy and outspokenness that's sometimes taken for arrogance, but he often seems mature beyond his years. Despite his boyish looks, one would think he's much older when he says things like, "It's taken me 20 years to accept who I am and go against the way I raised."
On a Saturday morning in August, Matt Salmon and his boyfriend, Kent Flake, sit inside Dolce Espresso, sipping iced coffees and watching the movie Dreamgirls on a plasma TV. The quaint, strip-mall coffee shop on East Camelback Road is one of Salmon's favorite haunts. Since starting medical school this fall at Midwestern University in Glendale, he goes there to study and take advantage of the free Wi-Fi.
Both Salmon and Flake are dressed in baggy shorts and T-shirts, waiting for bagels with cream cheese. Salmon's short blond hair is freshly gelled and spiked into a little faux-hawk. With his bright blue eyes, gleaming white smile, and athletic build, he could easily fit in a boy-band publicity photo. At 22, he's still got a baby face. People have always told him he's cute.
Flake works in interior design, and he's studying for a bachelor's degree in nursing at the Chamberlain College of Nursing in Phoenix. He's taller, thinner, and four years older than Salmon, with close-cropped brown hair, brown eyes, and braces on his teeth. The braces were one of the first things Salmon noticed.
"I thought they were kind of adorable," he says.
Salmon and Flake live together in an apartment near 16th Street and Osborn Road. The apartment building exterior is hot pink, a screaming bright spot amidst the surrounding ivy-covered white and beige buildings.
Their apartment is tidy and cozy. Living room furniture consists of a TV, two matching couches, a coffee table, and an entry table displaying a framed picture of the couple. There are a few decorations on the walls, including a painting of the ocean they bought in California, a black-and-white sketch of the Roman Coliseum, and a painting of two birds cuddling on a branch titled Unconditional Love.
There's a small patio out back, and a garden where they're growing tomatoes, chili peppers, basil, mint, and flowers. They have two dogs, a pug named Javier and a young boxer/border collie mix named Jim.
Salmon and Flake have a lot in common. They both love long boarding and snowboarding, they're both working toward medical careers, and they're both vegetarian. Both want to get married and have children. And like Salmon, Flake grew up in a devoutly Mormon family. Flake's parents and siblings live in Snowflake, a tiny conservative Mormon town in northeastern Arizona named for the family. No one in Kent's immediate family is a politician, but the Flake family has produced prominent Republicans, like late state senator Jake Flake and his nephew, U.S. Congressman Jeff Flake.
Congressman Flake is Kent's second cousin, and like Matt J. Salmon, he votes to the right. In 2006, he voted for an amendment to the state constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman. He voted against HR 1592 in 2007, which proposed including sexual orientation in the Hate Crimes Prevention Act. He voted "no" this year on repealing "don't ask, don't tell."
Matt Salmon and Kent Flake were familiar with each other's families but had never met when Flake sent Salmon a Facebook friend request in November.
"I heard his name a lot, because my aunt and uncle talk about his dad all the time, because my aunt and uncle are obsessed with his dad," Flake says on a recent Tuesday night, pressing a cheese sandwich into the couple's panini maker. "I found out the gay thing after I friended him, and I was like, 'Okay, that works.'"
Flake had never told anyone he was gay, but Salmon suspected it right away. "My Facebook shows that I'm gay," Salmon says. "I'm thinking, for a Mormon male to be adding an out, gay male is very suspicious."
Salmon invited Flake out on a date, and the two went to dinner, long boarding, and to see the movie The Blind Side. "We were together for eight hours," Salmon says. "And we just talked nonstop and hit it off really well."
On their second date, they rented Hannah Montana: The Movie from Redbox. Salmon had his hand on Flake's leg for most of the movie, and afterwards, Flake asked him to take a walk, where he told Salmon he was gay. "I always joke and tell people our first date, he wasn't gay, but he became gay on our second date," Salmon says.
Flake came out to his family. It didn't go well. "My parents were distraught by it," he says. "My dad [said] that . . . I was shaming their name."
A month after they started dating, Flake broke up with Salmon. He said he wanted to try and live the life the church wanted him to live.
"He went on and started talking about how he needed to live a righteous life and blah blah blah," Salmon says. "And then he said, 'I think someday I could marry a woman and have kids.' And that's when I got angry. And I said, 'You will ruin her life, as well as the lives of your children.' I just went off on him."
Flake was torn. "I knew how much I was in love with Matt, but I had the whole religious swaying. I didn't know what I was doing," he says.
They ended up staying together. After that night, Flake decided he wasn't going back to the church.
He, like Salmon, had his name officially removed from church records. Neither man believes in the Mormon doctrine anymore, but aside from occasionally drinking coffee and alcohol, they're both still clean-cut young men.
They've been a couple for 10 months, and things haven't gotten much easier with their families. Flake says he hasn't had a real conversation with his father since March and hasn't visited his family in Snowflake since a quick day trip in June. His family has no interest in meeting Salmon.
"I've asked them many times to meet him, and they don't want to see him," Flake says. "My dad's last comment to me was that he didn't want him around our family, his kids, or his grandkids."
When Flake started dating Salmon, he says, his sister called Salmon a "fag" and a "pedophile." Flake's sister, Trisha Rogers, tells New Times, "A lot of things were said in the beginning that caused contention. It's really important to me that people know there's no hatred there. It was just such a shock, because Kent seemed to change so quickly. He was different from the brother I knew for 25 years. We felt like we'd lost our brother, in a sense, and Matt got some of the blame."
Rogers says Flake's family still talks to him, even when gay issues come up. "We don't love him any less," she says. "There's just no desire to see him in a gay couple."
Flake's little brother, Wade, is the only member of his family who's met Salmon. Salmon says they're "cool" now, but "Wade had a problem with it at first and even sent me a message saying I better not be messing with his brother. That kind of stuff."
Salmon's family hasn't exactly been thrilled about his relationship with Flake, either, according to Matt. Last Christmas, before their families knew they were a couple, Flake spent the day with his family in his Snowflake. When Salmon's parents headed to their cabin in the same area, Salmon and Flake went snowboarding, and that night, Salmon's parents had Flake over for dinner at their cabin.
When Salmon's parents learned in January that Kent wasn't just a friend but was dating their son, he was no longer invited to come around. "The thing is, they like Kent," Salmon says. "They think he's an awesome person. They just don't like me being in a gay relationship. They don't like that we're together."
"Everybody's pretty much told me, 'You're fine, we love you, but your partner's not welcome because we don't want gay around us,'" Salmon says. "And I'm like, 'Well, I am gay. What if he doesn't act gay? Is that okay? Can he come around?'"
None of Salmon's three siblings met Flake until recently, after a fall-out on Facebook. For months, Salmon's been posting pro-gay comments on his Facebook and talking about nights out with Flake at local gay bars like Amsterdam. In late August, Salmon's siblings de-friended him.
He sent them an e-mail saying he wanted to repair the relationships. Afterwards, one of his sisters came over to meet Flake, and the other e-mailed Salmon and said she would like to meet Flake sometime, too.
"That may not sound like much, but it's a definitely a step," Salmon says. "They told me before that they wouldn't want to meet my partner."
Salmon's siblings still haven't re-added him as their Facebook friend.
He's still close to his cousin, Krista Salmon Gohus, who lives in the Valley. She has recently left the Mormon Church, too, and considers herself a Libertarian. "Matt and his boyfriend, Kent, have been to my home many times, and my 10-year-old son knows Matt and Kent are a couple," she says." I'm teaching my children that being gay is just like being left-handed or being born with curly hair. It's not right or wrong, it's just the way you were born."
A week before the August primary elections, Salmon stands before a dozen Republicans at Arizona GOP headquarters. Behind him, the walls are adorned with portraits of such prominent Republicans as John McCain, Barry Goldwater, and Abraham Lincoln.
Salmon announces he's the new president of the Arizona Log Cabin Republicans (the election was uncontested) and gives the floor to various Republican candidates, who are trying to earn votes for the following week. The Log Cabin Republicans listen attentively, while the candidates give energetic speeches about their platforms.
Speakers include congressional candidate Janet Contreras and state Senate candidate Bob Thomas. They talk about immigration reform and balancing the budget. No one brings up gay issues until former state legislator Steve May speaks up from the back row.
"There are four issues of importance to the gay community," May says. "Those issues are: repeal 'don't ask, don't tell,' repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, partner immigration equality, and employment non-discrimination. Where do each of you stand on those four issues? I want a 'yes' or 'no' answer."
May doesn't get simple answers. The candidates run in verbal circles (Contreras finally says she opposes a federal marriage amendment), and Salmon turns around and grins. Until now, the candidates have been preaching to the choir. But when it comes to fighting for gay equality, Log Cabin Republicans are a minority within their own party.
"Gay Republican" sounds like a contradiction to most people. After all, this is a party whose image has been dominated by the religious right. Salmon understands that.
"The religious right has such a strong hold on the Republican Party," he says. "Because even though they aren't really the majority, they are the loudest, they have the most money, and they are the most zealous. They're the ones that care to get in other people's business."
On the other side are the Log Cabin Republicans, a national organization founded in the late 1970s that advocates equality and supports Republican candidates willing to work on gay issues.
The Arizona chapter was active through the 1990s and early 2000s, when May was in the Legislature and Jim Kolbe was in the House of Representatives. It was also around the time Barry Goldwater came out in support of his gay grandson, Ty Goldwater, and gay rights. In 1992, Goldwater endorsed Democrat Karan English for Congress over Doug Wead, her conservative Republican opponent.
It wasn't the last time a local Republican went against his constituency. Near his retirement in 2006, Kolbe refused to endorse Randy Graf, a Republican candidate opposed to same-sex marriage.
Kolbe admitted he was gay in 1996, after his vote in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act caused an outcry among gay rights activists. At that point, Kolbe had been closeted in Congress for 11 years.
When Ken Mehlman, 2004 campaign manager for George W. Bush, came out last month, he was criticized by gay activist blogger Michael Rogers, who called him a "quisling homophobic scumbag."
"It is certainly within reason that [gays] can also have beliefs that align with some of the values of the Republican Party," says former Tempe mayor and GLAAD president Neil Giuliano. "It becomes much more difficult when the 'gay Republican' denies their true sexual orientation and sides with the anti-gay Republicans to hold back our progress toward being equal citizens in this country."
In June, Salmon wrote a guest blog for gay and lesbian website bilericoproject.com, titled "An Elephant Doesn't Fit in a Closet." He wrote he agrees with "the core ideals" of the Republican Party: "limited government, individual freedom, personal responsibility, strong national defense, and free-market economy" and that "all of those basics support equality for GLBT individuals."
Numerous readers disagreed in the comments section. Some called Salmon names, everything from "crazy" and "traitor" to a "delusional young whippersnapper" and "an enabler to continuing discrimination and oppression of LGBT Americans."
But Salmon believes the Republican Party can become more open about gay rights. He hopes more people from the gay community will become Republicans, lending support to more moderate candidates who might work toward equality.
"Matt's a dynamic leader, and he will be a potent force for good in the state of Arizona for a long time to come," May says. "Him having the same name as his dad is interesting, but that's not who this kid is. This is an amazing young man who has unlimited potential."
Salmon's willing to work alongside Democrats and recently met with representatives of Equality Arizona, Human Rights Campaign, and Arizona Stonewall Democrats. "I'm really glad that Matt's revived the Log Cabin Republicans, because the Democrats need a group on the other side of the aisle to work with," says Democrat and state Representative Kyrsten Sinema, who is openly bisexual. "The fact is, as a body politic, we need to support Democrats and Republicans who are willing to work in the middle."
Ty Goldwater, who operates an interior design firm in Phoenix, says the Log Cabin Republicans have another purpose: "They are important in the sense that they can work from within to sway the hearts and minds of the average Republican."
But sometimes, gay Republicans jump ship. Giuliano says he left the party after it became too socially conservative. "It became crystal clear to me that I could spend the rest of my life trying to 'work from within' and 'strengthen the moderate voice' of the Republican Party," Giuliano says. "But make no mistake, the core values of the Republican Party are tied to religious-based, anti-equality voices . . . and that is not going to change."
"In fact, after every more-moderate Republican candidate for president has lost, the party has shifted further to the right, led by a strong religious-based coalition," Giuliano says. "I decided as long as I remained a Republican, I was adding strength to and enabling a party that does not believe in 'liberty and justice for all' and will never accept or support me being treated equally."
Gay Republicans also get flak from their own party. In 1995, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole's campaign returned the Log Cabin Republicans' $1,000 donation, stating Dole was in "100 percent disagreement with the agenda of the Log Cabin Republicans."
Recently, Republican commentator Ann Coulter was blasted for her plans to speak at Homocon, a gathering of gay Republicans set for September 25 in New York City. Conservative site WorldNetDaily dropped Coulter from its upcoming conference. She defended herself by saying, "They hired me to give a speech, so I'm giving a speech."
Salmon doesn't believe being a Republican means being anti-gay. He says Democrats haven't done much to advance gay rights, either, and says it was President Bill Clinton who signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law and instituted "don't ask, don't tell." He also says, "President Obama doesn't believe in gay marriage."
"I don't really feel like equality has a party," Salmon says. "I don't like what a lot of Republicans have been doing recently . . . but I think if Republicans really get back to their roots, I think it's a party the gay community can get behind."
As for how he feels about his father's anti-gay voting record, Salmon says, "We clearly disagree. But I know why he believes what he does, and it doesn't really hurt me. I don't know how to explain, but I'm not offended at all."
"It's bad for anyone to be in opposition to equality, but everyone comes from a different background," Salmon says. "I was raised that way, too, believing that homosexuality is wrong. At one time, I shared his views."
Young Matt Salmon believed in Santa Claus until he was 12. For years, other kids tried convincing him that Santa didn't exist. They'd share stories, like how one girl caught her parents putting presents under the tree on Christmas Eve.
He defended Santa fiercely. There was always an explanation — like, you could get presents from your parents and Santa. His faith wasn't shattered until sixth grade. One day, his teacher was talking to the class and said, "Most of you know by now that Santa Claus isn't real."
Salmon was devastated. "What? He isn't real?"
He felt guilty for finding out the truth. His parents had played along, and he felt he was somehow taking away their joy at playing the roles of Santas, Easter Bunnies, and Tooth Fairies by not believing anymore.
Matt's cousin, Krista Salmon Gohus, remembers him as a "very sweet and kind little boy" who always played with girls because he had no male cousins his age.
Gohus says that her upbringing, like Matt's, revolved around the Mormon Church. "Matt was taught by his family the importance of God in all aspects of life," she says. "Our family is extremely patriotic and very Republican."
Though Salmon's childhood was normal, even somewhat privileged, his shame for being attracted to boys followed him everywhere, from the annual family vacations in Newport Beach, California, to their regular church services.
"I remember when I was about 7 or 8 being attracted to other boys, but I didn't really know what it was," he says. "Growing up, I felt so much shame, all coming from my belief in the church."
Until high school, Matt says he was uninterested in his father's political work. "My father rarely brought politics home," he says. "He worked five days a week and had to travel out of town a lot. He was only home on Saturdays and Sundays."
Though unaware of his father's politics, Matt had similar convictions of his own: Homosexuality was bad, and he'd never get into Heaven being gay.
When Matt came out to his mother at 14, he wasn't seeking acceptance. He was seeking help. "I had an extremely guilty conscience," he says. "The church said if I prayed and fasted and confessed, I could overcome my weakness. And that's what I felt like I had — a weakness."
So he prayed, fasted, and repented constantly — for years. Nothing changed. "I remember feeling that I was destined for Hell. I felt like I could never be fixed," he says. "I always felt overwhelmed with the fact this is how my life is going to be."
A few months after coming out to his mother, Salmon told his father.
"The first time I had a conversation with him about it, it did not go well. He was very upset and said some things right off that I know he doesn't really feel," Salmon says. "He's never called me any slurs or anything like that, but he made it clear he didn't like it."
Salmon tried to change for the next seven years, still believing in the Mormon Church. Church leaders encouraged him to overcome his homosexuality. Salmon wanted nothing more. He was crushed when told he would probably not be chosen to go on a mission.
"I tried so hard to do what they wanted me to do and be who they wanted me to be, but I could never do it," he says. "It never worked. I even went to reparative therapy to turn me straight."
Though Salmon's therapist was Mormon, he says, "it wasn't a religious therapy," but more Freudian. "His therapy was all based on the fact that I had a distant father . . . It was like, 'Growing up, you've missed some developmental steps,'" Salmon says. "'You have these tendencies because when you were little, you didn't let yourself become attached to other men. So, in not letting yourself develop healthy relationships with other men, the exotic becomes the erotic.'"
At the time, Salmon was "all about" the therapy. "I look back and think how brainwashed I was," he says.
His therapist debunked the idea of divine intervention. "My therapist even told me, 'Praying is never going to heal you,'" Salmon says.
Near the end of his therapy, Salmon was dating a girl. He says she had no idea he was gay and in therapy. She was awesome and they got along great, he recalls, but one day she broke up with him. Through tears, she said she told him there was some reason they couldn't be together — that she just felt it.
He left therapy. "It hit me, and I took it as kind of a sign," Salmon says. "And I realized I could never be with a woman unless I was naturally attracted to her, and this therapy was basically training me on how to be attracted to women. So after that is when I told my parents I was done with therapy — and I still believed in the church all through this time."
Salmon continued to attend church, and loathe himself. In 2006, he helped his mother campaign for Proposition 107 and voted for it.
"I was extremely torn on it," Salmon says. "I knew what I wanted, but because of how I raised . . . I was willing to even discriminate against myself, rather than go against my family and what I was taught."
One day in summer 2008, Matt R. Salmon was sitting in church in Mesa. The minister was talking about two proposed bans on gay marriage, California's Proposition 8 and Arizona's Proposition 102, and encouraging people to donate to the campaigns. Salmon recalls the minister saying all homosexual relationships were selfish and all homosexuals promiscuous.
"And I'm thinking, 'This is ridiculous,'" Salmon says. "It was after that I just stopped going. I feel like if you're going to go to church, you should be edified, and I actually felt worse when I'd be at church."
That fall, Salmon voted at the polls on Proposition 102. This time, he voted "no."
Salmon's waning faith in the church finally collapsed on a car ride with his father, while visiting his parents in Virginia for Christmas 2008.
"My dad was talking about Scientology, and how ridiculous it was as a religion," Salmon says. "He'd say, 'It was created by a science fiction author, and they believe men started out as aliens, and they have to pay these ridiculous sums of money in order to advance in their religion.'"
Salmon saw parallels to Mormonism — how it was started by a 14-year-old boy who said humans were the first "intelligences" and that men can become gods, and how tithing was the only way to advance in the church.
"So after that, I really started to question the thinking. Do I really believe in all this?" Salmon says. He ultimately decided he didn't, and had his name removed from Mormon Church records in May.
Matt says he received his father's support when he decided to reform the Arizona Log Cabin Republicans.
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"The last time we talked about my active involvement, he said, 'You know, though I don't agree with your opinion . . . if this is something you feel you need to fight for and stand up for, then you should,'" Salmon says. "So that was really great."
Salmon's hopeful that not only his family will be more open to gay rights someday, but maybe so will the Republican Party and society as a whole. "In several years, once there is full equality, it's not going to be an issue, as far as who stands for what, because gays will have rights," he says. "I'm sure that will eventually be the case."
As for his family, Salmon's trying to be as understanding of them as he expects them to be of him.
"It took me 20 years to accept that I'm gay, and to live openly and understand equality issues," he says. "I can't expect them to do it in four months."