WASHINGTON -- An Alaska high school student said he and his classmates were stunned by Rep. Don Young's (R-Alaska) insensitive comments during a school assembly Tuesday and thinks the congressman’s apology was insincere.
Zachary Grier, 17, a senior at Wasilla High School, asked Young during the assembly why he still opposed same-sex marriage, even after a court struck down Alaska's ban on same-sex unions. Young responded by asking Grier, “What do you get when you have two bulls having sex?” When Grier answered that he didn’t know, Young told him: “A whole lot of bull.”
Grier said his principal cut the assembly short after his question. Many teachers later thanked him for pressing Young.
“I was pretty upset,” Grier told The Huffington Post. “I can understand having your own opinion, and that’s fine. But having your own opinion and coming into a room filled with high schoolers and telling them that same-sex marriage is the same as two bulls having sex -- in my opinion, that’s wrong.”
Even more shocking, Grier said, was the way Young talked about suicide less than a week after a high school classmate took his own life. Young told the assembly of about 130 students that suicide was caused by a lack of community support, which angered a close friend of the deceased student. When the student interrupted Young to say that wasn’t true, the congressman called him a “smartass,” Grier said.
“To hear that it was because you weren’t a good friend, I mean that makes someone hurt more than just having that happen,” Grier said. “To hear that it’s your fault after the fact is definitely a heavier blow.”
The leader of the nation's largest suicide prevention organization expressed dismay at Young's comments.
"Alaska has one of the highest rates of suicide in the United States and it is disappointing that Representative Young would say such ill-informed remarks about something that is taking the lives of his constituents, young and old, across the Frontier State," said Robert Gebbia, CEO of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Gebbia said it's imperative for people to be sensitive when talking about suicide, and responsibility is greater for those who hold public office. "Members of Congress, and elected officials across the country, should lead by example on this important health concern," Gebbia said.
Grier said he had not heard from Young personally, but the school received an apologetic letter from Young’s campaign. Grier said the letter was meaningless because Young on Wednesday said he stuck by his comments.
“In my opinion, a written apology doesn’t mean crap because it’s not from him,” Grier said. The teen also dismissed a statement released by Young’s office on Tuesday that said Young “did not mean to upset anyone with his well-intentioned message.”
“I don’t know how anything was well-intentioned there,” Grier said. “Whatever was intended well was not taken well, I’ll put it like that. Because of the way he made it come across and because of the views that he’s sticking to, a day after he heard how badly it affected our school.”
Grier added that he thought his school would appreciate a genuine apology from the congressman.
Young, who has served in Congress since 1973, exposed viewpoints that Alaska voters may not have known he held, Grier said.
“Why would people from Alaska have voted this guy in so many times if these are his views and he’s not afraid to stick by them whether it hurts high schoolers or not?,” Grier said. “I still don’t understand how people could have voted him in as much as they have.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said Thursday night that she had talked to Young and "encouraged him to rethink the past few days and apologize to Alaskans" for his remarks.
"One of Don's qualities that Alaskans appreciate is his willingness to speak from the gut," Murkowski wrote on her Facebook page. "On a serious issue like suicide, that casts an enormous and dark shadow across our state, much more thought needs to be given before speaking up. Words matter, and I hope Don can recognize the need to apologize to all Alaskans who have been impacted by the tragedy of suicide."
This article has been updated to include comment from Sen. Murkowski.
Jennifer Bendery contributed reporting.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.