A talk radio host and former Fremont County Republican Party chairman was suspended last week after he described homosexuality as “destructive,” “not a viable lifestyle” and a cultural threat to public schoolchildren in a minutes-long on-air inquisition.
John Birbari made the comments during a weekly interview with Fremont County School District #25 Superintendent Terry Snyder. Snyder appears on the show each week to discuss school board meetings, but Birbari diverged from the standard conversation last week and began questioning Snyder about paintings supporting LGBTQ students in Riverton High School. Birbari’s questioning of Snyder included a slew of homophobic sentiments.
During the interview, Birbari took a call from State Representative Tim Salazar (R-Dubois), who joined the questioning of Snyder without identifying himself.
Snyder, who repeatedly asserted that his district could not and would not discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer students declined to talk at length with WyoFile about the experience. But in an email to school staff, obtained by WyoFile, he said he was “offended and caught off guard” by the turn the interview took.
“I consider what Mr. Birbari did an ambush,” said Dean Peranteaux, a local school board member.
Birbari said a listener had emailed him a photo of a painting in the school hallway. The painting was of a rainbow flag with “LGBTQ+” painted across it and an accompanying message of “Love is love,” according to a Facebook photo obtained by WyoFile. In the Facebook photo, a young man stands to one side of the painting, holding up a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag with both middle fingers extended. The caption to his photo contained a homophobic slur.
But to the community radio host, it was the painting itself that carried a dangerous message, one representative of “a cultural problem in our schools.”
“The homosexual lifestyle has been demonstrated to be very destructive medically,” Birbari began during the live broadcast, saying there were high disease and suicide rates amongst the “homosexual population.” The comment appeared to elicit an uncomfortable cough from somewhere in the studio as Birbari begins his rant.
Amongst gay people Birbari had known, all but one “have come to very tragic ends,” he said. “The one case that didn’t turned his back on the homosexual lifestyle and went back to his wife and kids.”
The Center for Disease Control reports increased health risks for members of the LGBTQ community, while noting that those risks are driven by “stigma and discrimination” in addition to differences in sexual behavior.
When Snyder said his school would not discriminate against LGBTQ youth, Birbari told Snyder “sexual orientation is not included in the Civil Rights Act.”
“Homosexuality is simply not a viable lifestyle,” Birbari said. “It’s not a healthy alternative.” His radio show, The Morning Buzz, broadcasts on the Wind River Radio Network.
Birbari served as chairman of the Fremont County Republican Party as recently as 2012, and still appears active in party politics. A recent Facebook photo shows him shaking hands with State Rep. Nathan Winters (R-Thermopolis) who is a candidate for state auditor.
Dubois Rep. Salazar called into the program in the midst of the conversation. Though Salazar represents part of Fremont County, School District #25 does not fall within his House district.
Without identifying himself, Salazar asked the superintendent if the school would be “as receptive to Christian messages on the halls of the schools as homosexual messages.” He later thanked Birbari for bringing the LGBTQ flag to the public’s attention.
Birbari did not identify the elected official on the phone either while on air. Salazar was the only caller he brought into the conversation. Salazar confirmed to WyoFile he had made the call but said it had not been previously planned with Birbari. He was alerted to the ongoing discussion by concerned constituents, he said, and called in. Birbari put him on the the air eight and half minutes into the roughly 10 minute long discussion, after asking Snyder if he would take a question from a caller.
“I don’t do gotcha,” Salazar told WyoFile. “That’s not the way to discuss public policy.”
Snyder lacked the practiced radio voice in which Birbiri delivered his views, but the superintendent pushed back against the host’s comments during the interview.
“What you’ve portrayed are opinions and maybe some dated opinions,” Snyder said. At one point the two men interrupted one another as they argued.
“For you to paint them that they are the evil of society I don’t think that’s appropriate,” Snyder said.
“Did I say that?” Birbari responded.
“You came pretty close to it John,” Snyder said.
“But I didn’t say that,” Birbari said.
Birbari was suspended for two weeks because of the segment, station manager Valorie Mayo said. The punishment could extend longer than that. “It’s kind of indefinite,” she said. “Harm has occurred because of this.”
Birbari’s comments “are not the views of this station,” Mayo said. “Our youth are beloved and our community is all we are.” She declined to comment further on how the station would be responding to pushback from its listeners. Mayo said she believed Birbari had worked at the station for 11 years. He is also an advertising salesman there. His LinkedIn profile says he has been host of The Morning Buzz for four years.
“The gay Wyomingites in Riverton deserve better than the contempts and falsehoods masked as Christianity that John Birbari is peddling,” said Sara Burlingame, executive director of Cheyenne-based advocacy group Wyoming Equality.
Birbari said homosexuality was not endorsed by “our moral code,” the Bible.
Snyder declined to comment on whether the station’s suspension of Birbari was sufficient, saying he felt the matter had not yet been closed.
“I think we have to wait to see exactly how they do respond to that so I don’t think I should comment on that,” he said.
For his part, Salazar said he was not on the show to endorse Birbari’s views of homosexuality.
“That’s not why I was calling,” he said. “I don’t want to get into anything like that. My concern was simply that we shouldn’t have public political messaging painted on the walls in a public schools.”
During the most recent legislative session, Salazar voted in favor of a failed bill brought by socially conservative lawmakers that would authorize custodians of public schools, libraries and other government buildings to “prominently” display the national motto “In God We Trust” on their walls.
“I guess I don’t have a problem with the national motto or the United States flag,” Salazar told WyoFile Wednesday.
But when asked what message he would deliver to LGBTQ Wyoming youth who learn a state representative joined Birbari on the controversial radio program, Salazar offered one of support.
“No matter who you are you should never be afraid,” he said. “No one in public schools should be afraid of who they are. Public schools should be a safe haven.”
“But,” he added, “it should also not be a public platform for anyone’s political agenda.”
Republican county officials silent
In 2008, Birbari served as chairman of the Wyoming Family Coalition, according to a report in the Casper Star-Tribune. The group pushed various pieces of legislation aimed at banning same-sex marriage in Wyoming, even as courts around the country were beginning to rule that banning marriage equality was unconstitutional.
Birbari did not respond to an email and a Facebook message requesting comment for this article.
In 2014, as the U.S. Supreme Court prepared to rule on the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges case, which upheld the fundamental right of same-sex couples to marry, 16 Wyoming lawmakers filed an amicus brief arguing against gay marriage. Ten of them are still in office today.
Emails requesting comment from current Fremont County Republican Chairperson Pepper Ottman, and vice-chair John Boesch also went unanswered.
Burlingame, the LGBTQ advocate, called for soul searching in the Wyoming Republican Party.
“GOP leadership needs to take a good long hard look at who they are empowering to speak for the people of Wyoming,” she said. “I honestly do not think that Rep. Salazar or John Birbari’s views are representative of the vast majority of Wyomingites who have said in poll after poll that they believe that fairness and equality are Wyoming values.”
Listen to the relevant segment of the radio show here.