One young Republican’s pursuit of the ‘Freedom to Marry’

Republican Tyler Deaton has known he was attracted to men as far back as he can remember. When he was four or five, he would draw himself marrying another man. “I knew I was different in that way before I’d ever even been taught it was wrong,” he says.

It wasn’t until a few years later that he learned in church that what he was feeling was sinful. “I distinctly remember a night when I was in third grade, all night long, just crying. Finding these different sections in the Bible and just crying. I didn’t sleep that night. That stuck with me for a long time. That one night, it was a revelation.”

Deaton was part of a conservative evangelical Christian family living in Georgia. He was taught to live by the Bible as the literal word of God. And he did, in a lot of ways. But he also knew that he was gay and that it wasn’t going to change.

Deaton’s story is one of 23 interviews conducted between 2015 and 2016 by the Bancroft Library’s Oral History Center at UC Berkeley. The interviews, conducted by the center’s director, Martin Meeker, explore Freedom to Marry — a national campaign that won the federal right for same-sex couples to get married — and how it fits in with the decades-long marriage movement.

Tyler Deaton

Tyler Deaton

“I never wanted to change,” Deaton told Meeker, about being gay. “And I knew I couldn’t. I spent most of my time trying to figure out how I could at least feel better about myself.”

By high school, the 10th grader began to realize that there were other ideas out there. He took a zoology class, where he learned about evolutionary theory. And he began to piece together his own value system apart from the traditional mold he’d been expected to fill

In college, he met Jay, whom he would later marry in New Hampshire, one of the only states that was politically conservative but also LGBT-friendly — a rare find in the U.S.

Because although Deaton supported LGBT issues, he was also a Republican. He believed in small government. He was conservative on fiscal and national security issues. He’d voted for George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004 (the first time he was old enough to vote) and for John McCain in 2008. “I really wish he’s been president in 2008,” he says. “I voted for him enthusiastically over Barack Obama. Would do it again.”

Same-sex marriage, to Deaton, was a single issue. It shouldn’t be part of a larger, left-leaning progressive movement, he thought. “There are a lot of Republicans who just will never even open the door being of a part of it then,” he says. “But if you keep it a single issue, you can build a coalition around that.”

In 2011, when Tea Party Republicans threatened to repeal New Hampshire’s same-sex marriage law, which had been enacted three years before — Deaton couldn’t let it happen.

Jay and Tyler

Tyler Deaton (right) and his now husband Jay McClure in 2013

The young Republican would go on to lead a trailblazing effort, convincing his fellow conservatives in the state to support the freedom to marry. In 2012, the bill to repeal the law was defeated by a bipartisan vote in the state legislature, 211 to 116, with more than 100 Republicans voting against the repeal. Deaton went on to be a founding member of the “Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry.”

Read the transcript of the full interview with Tyler Deaton to find out how he worked with Republicans to defeat the repeal of the freedom to marry in New Hampshire.

Learn more about the Oral History Center’s “Freedom to Marry” project.

On Sunday, the Cal Alumni Association is partnering with the Gender Equity Resource Center to lead a group of UC Berkeley alumni, students, faculty, staff and friends in the 47th annual San Francisco Pride Parade. Those planning to march are encouraged to register. The first 300 people to register and arrive at the meetup location will receive a free Cal Pride T-shirt. For more information and to register, visit the event page.