As the House of Representatives convened on Thursday to vote for the Respect for Marriage Act, lawmakers rose to speak both in favor and against the landmark bill.
Among those opposing the legislation, which would act as a fail-safe should the Supreme Court's right-wing majority reverse the decision that legalized marriage equality, was Rep. Vicky Hartzler. The Missouri Republican said it was Christians, and not the LGBTQ community, who were under threat in the US, arguing the government was trying to silence religious people.
Then, she broke down as she implored her colleagues to vote against the bill.
"I hope and pray that my colleagues will find the courage to join me in opposing this misguided and this dangerous bill," Hartzler said through tears.
On TikTok, one user even turned her speech into a defiant dance track.
Across the country in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 23-year-old Andrew Hartzler's Instagram started lighting up as friends and followers began tagging him in clips of the footage. Why? Andrew is gay and Rep. Hartzler is his aunt.
"At first I just thought that it was an old video because that kind of rhetoric is quite common from my aunt," he told BuzzFeed News. "But I realized that it was from today and what she was talking about, and, yeah, I wasn't really surprised."
"It was weird to me that she was crying. I would say that," he added. "I don't think that was a performance. Knowing my aunt, I think those were genuine tears."
After coming out to her in February, Andrew isn't close to his aunt anymore, and his relationship with his conservative, religious parents has also suffered. But he felt strongly enough about her teary comments on Thursday that he wanted to respond.
"I do feel compelled to speak out when I see this just to counter these messages," he said. "I don't want my last name to be associated with hate. I want it to be associated with love."
In a TikTok he posted on Friday, which has since been viewed more than 200,000 times, Andrew told his aunt that religious institutions aren't being persecuted, highlighting how Christian schools receive federal funding despite discriminating against LGBTQ students.
"It's more like you want the power to force your religious beliefs onto everyone else, and because you don't have that power, you feel like you're being silenced," he said in the TikTok. "But you're not. You're just gonna have to learn to coexist with all of us. And I'm sure it's not that hard."
Andrew is part of a federal class action lawsuit in which plaintiffs are suing the Department of Education to stop religious schools from receiving taxpayer dollars if they discriminate against LGBTQ students. Under current law, such schools receive religious exemptions from complying with Title IX anti-discrimination laws.
He began attending Oral Roberts University, a Christian college, in 2017 due to pressure from his father, who had sent him two years earlier to a summer camp that practiced conversion therapy. Like other religious universities, Oral Roberts has an honor code that prohibits "homosexual activity."
In his junior year, Andrew got into trouble for having his boyfriend in his dorm and was forced to attend "accountability meetings" with school officials. But he managed to evade the proceedings and ultimately graduate when the school stopped in-person classes in 2020 due to the pandemic. Still, the experience left him depressed and with thoughts of suicide.
"I felt embarrassed and ashamed for being punished for my sexuality," Andrew wrote in a court declaration. "I am thankful to be a survivor of Oral Roberts University's discrimination and harassment on the basis of my sexual orientation."
Rep. Hartzler is among the most anti-gay members of Congress, having consistently received a score of zero in the annual scorecard from the Human Rights Campaign, which ranks members on their support for equality bills.
Before she was elected to Congress in 2011, Hartzler was a home economics teacher and then a lawmaker in the Missouri state government. In 2004, she served as the Missouri spokesperson for the Coalition to Protect Marriage, which led a successful effort to amend the state's constitution to ban marriage for same-sex couples.
Rep. Hartzler, who is married to Andrew's father's brother, is leaving Congress in the new year, having mounted an unsuccessful campaign to secure the Republican nomination for senator. Her staff did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.
Andrew said his aunt recently invited him to spend Thanksgiving at her home, but he opted not to go because he didn't feel he'd be accepted there. He said he hopes his words here and in his TikTok make his aunt reckon with the impact of her rhetoric.
"I really wish that she would see how harmful her words are and that she wouldn't use her political power to continue instilling religious exemptions into civil rights laws and allowing schools to actively discriminate against LGBTQ people," he said. "I think that she's trying to play the victim when really she's the perpetrator of a lot of harm being done, and I feel like she needs to take responsibility."
Andrew said he feels his aunt misunderstands the respect and appreciation LGBTQ people have for marriage. He pointed to the words of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who, in his majority opinion legalizing marriage equality, wrote, "It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves."
When he first read that passage in 2015, Andrew said the words moved him to tears.
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