In her phone contacts, he is “SenatorDaddy” with two emoji: an American flag and a bright red heart. “Hey dad, I just wanted to give you a heads up,” began the text she typed to him before giving the speech that would bring her national attention.
Meagan Simonaire, Maryland’s youngest state lawmaker, was terrified of losing the approval of her father, longtime state Sen. Bryan Simonaire, a Republican from Anne Arundel County. But she’d heard what he said about “conversion therapy” on the Senate floor, and she wouldn’t forgive herself for staying quiet.
At 27, she’d managed four years in the General Assembly as a halfway closeted bisexual Republican. Now she was about to come out on the floor of the House of Delegates. Not only would she rebuke her father’s views. She would tell the story of the pain her parents caused when she’d revealed to them her sexual orientation.
Doing so, she hoped, would help persuade wavering lawmakers to pass a bill making Maryland the 11th state to ban conversion therapy for minors.
“I love you and hope you understand where I am coming from and that I am still your little girl who you have loved all along,” Meagan Simonaire texted. Then she put down the phone, fought her nervousness and looked up toward the marbled columns of one of America’s oldest state capitols.
The third of seven brothers and sisters, Simonaire spent much of her childhood in the Middle East, where her father worked as an engineer for Northrop Grumman. In an interview, she described a happy upbringing. The family attended nondenominational Christian churches. Her parents opposed homosexuality and sex outside of marriage based on their religious beliefs, but also raised their children to be free thinkers.
Those years abroad, Simonaire said, taught her to respect what people believe, even when she disagrees. She spent a year in Saudi Arabia, where — because of religious norms — women weren’t allowed to drive and sometimes got yelled at for leaving their hands exposed.
After the family moved back to Pasadena, Md., a Republican stronghold about 35 miles from Washington, Simonaire knocked on doors with her father while he campaigned for state senate. At 17, she left to study cosmetology at Bob Jones University, the fundamentalist Christian school in South Carolina that her parents had attended. She kissed a few girl crushes in her late teens, but they weren’t serious, and she figured back then that she’d end up with a guy. That way, maybe she’d never have to confront her sexuality head on.
When a seat at the statehouse for Anne Arundel County came open in 2014, she decided to run, inspired in part by a conference she’d recently attended on how to fight human trafficking. She never considered not running as a Republican. Her father talked about keeping government small so that people could keep their hard-earned money, and that made sense to her.
At first, her father knocked on doors with her and did much of the talking. But after awhile, she told him she had the hang of campaigning, and he should wait in the car.
“I was thinking, ‘How am I ever going to separate myself?’ ” she recalled in an interview with a local newspaper after capturing 24 percent of the vote in an eight-way primary to become one of two Republicans chosen to sail through the district’s general election.
She’d been in a secret, on-and-off relationship with another young woman, who told her: “I don’t mind that you can’t be proud of me in public.” But Simonaire found the sneaking around too stressful. She felt anxious and ashamed. Her parents were so proud of her — how could she throw that away? She told the girlfriend she needed a break.
Once in office, Simonaire felt even more anxious about hiding who she was. A documentary about the coming out of Christian country music singer Chely Wright helped give her the nerve to tell her parents. One chilly afternoon a year ago during a family vacation in Florida, Simonaire and her mother and sister were sipping Starbucks drinks on the beach. That girl she’d spent so much time with, Simonaire said, “that was my girlfriend.” Her mother was shocked, and she teared up.
“They raised me a certain way,” Simonaire said, explaining why her parents were heartbroken. “Our religion says not to do that. They just found out I did that.”
Exactly what followed is a matter of family disagreement. Simonaire says her parents reacted out of love, not spite. But they recommended Christian counselors, she says, at least one of whom specialized in treating “unwanted homosexuality.”
Her father says he wasn’t trying to push conversion therapy on his daughter, just trying to find help for her anxiety and depression. “I certainly do not agree with her lifestyle. I was very clear in that,” Bryan Simonaire said. But he wishes he’d spoken more carefully.
“As I recall, I probably did say ‘disgusted,’ and that was not the best choice of words,” he said. “If I could do it over again, I would certainly not use those unloving words.”
His daughter said she fell into a deeper depression. “I wanted to kill myself,” she said.
She settled into the routine of being a legislator, listening to constituents, educating herself on bills and deciding how to vote — a welcome distraction to her personal struggles.
At times, she took stances that were at odds with her father and other Republicans. He showed respect for her views. She went to gay karaoke nights and pride parades.
“Plenty of people had ideas out there that I might be dating girls,” she said.
One night in March, she was eating dinner with other legislators at the Loews Annapolis Hotel, where many of them stay during the 90-day lawmaking session. That’s when she learned her father was fighting a bill that would forbid licensed counselors and other health professionals from practicing conversion therapy on minors. Such therapy — trying to convert people from gay to straight, as if being gay were a disorder — has long been discredited in the medical community. The American Psychiatric Association has found it not only ineffective, but dangerous, with the potential to cause depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
“I will definitely speak in support of this,” she told her dinner companions, who came from both sides of the political aisle.
The consensus at the table was that the bill was already dead. But by early April, the bill was very much alive, thanks to broad Democratic support.
Simonaire struggled with what to do. She’d already announced she wasn’t running for reelection; she planned to focus on her career as a cosmetic tattoo artist. She could just vote to approve the prohibition, and leave it at that. But she hadn’t joined the legislature to stay quiet about issues important to her.
She considered telling her story without revealing it as her own, but she knew people would suspect. It was time to come out publicly, she decided.
The debate came to the House floor on April 4, after the bill had already passed the Senate. Simonaire didn’t speak to her father beforehand, she said, afraid of getting too emotional. Instead she wrote the text message, hit send and put her phone in airplane mode.
When the time came, she stood at her desk inside the chamber. “Thank you, Mr. Speaker,” she began. There are plenty of well-intentioned parents out there, she said, “afraid that their child will live a harder life if they are LGBT, or they are so worried that God will not bless them if their sexual orientation differs in any way from the mainstream.”
Her own story came at the end. “I want to tell you about a girl who grew up in the best family she could imagine,” she said. She told of the parents’ disgust when their daughter came out to them. “They weren’t ever hateful by any means, but they were fully convinced that she was living in sin, and desperately wanted to get her the help that she needed.”
The girl never actually endured conversion therapy, she said, but “the pain of having her good-intended parents convinced of its ability to fix her was enough to cause significant pain, self-loathing and deep depression.”
In closing, Simonaire revealed that the story was hers. Her speech was followed by the vote. The tally — 95 to 27 in favor of the prohibition — brought 15 seconds of applause. All the no votes were by Republicans, but many had voted with her.
Her father “was devastated, betrayed, hurt,” Simonaire said.
Online commenters attacked him, and some propelled a false narrative that he’d forced conversion therapy on his daughter as a child. The hate mail showed up immediately.
The legislature’s adjournment day the next week was difficult for father and daughter, far from the happy celebrations they’d shared in previous years.
She’s gotten hate mail, too. Ugly stuff. But she also received praise, including some that surprised her. One conservative lawmaker, she says, told her he was moved by her speech. He’d voted with her afterward.
She was featured on the MichaeLA show on HLN, the CNN spinoff formerly known as Headline News, where the host gushed: “Oh honey, I’m terrifically proud of you.”
Her father listened to her speech online.
“At the end of the day, it does not change my love for her one ounce,” Bryan Simonaire said. “She’s still my little sunshine, as I call her, and she always will be.”
He also still thinks being gay is wrong — “just like I think adultery is wrong,” he said. “Those are my religious beliefs and I hold to them, and I don’t think they’re changeable.”
His daughter may have swayed some minds in the statehouse. But not the one who mattered most.