Utah: A Hornet's Nest That Gays & Lesbians Call 'Home'

Queerty, New Zealand/January 28, 2009

Say "Utah" to a gay man or lesbian woman and you might as well have force them to suck on a lemon. To LGBT people, the Beehive State has become a hornet's nest of homophobia and hate. Since November, the state has ben under a constant threat of boycott. The Utah Gay Ski Week was canceled, Americablog's John Aravosis calls it a "hate state" and there's even a site called utahboycott.com.

When it comes to hatin' on Utah, we've become no better than the people who discriminate against us. To steal another state's motto, you've got a friend in Utah. In fact, you have many, many friends in Utah. Instead of abandoning them to the wolves, it's time for us to differentiate our rightly justified anger at Mormon Church leaders from a state that has, in ways both small and large, been on the front lines of LGBT equality.

Salt Lake City's Pride Parade is the second-largest parade of any kind in the state. This past weekend, hundreds of gay and straight LGBT equality activists marched for an initiative called Common Ground that takes the Mormon Church's argument that they don't object to equal protection for gays & lesbians and turns it into legislation that would do just that. Yesterday, the first portion of the bill died in committee. Utah's gay & lesbians don't need us ignoring the state. They need us involved, as a closer look at the fight inside the beehive proves.

You'd think that Salt Lake, the seat of the Mormon Church, would be a horribly conservative place, but it's actually the most liberal part of the state. In 2000, Mayor Rocky Anderson won running on a platform that included support of gay marriage. Once in office, the Mayor signed an executive order creating domestic partnerships for city employees. Utahn conservatives kicked into high gear, with State Senator Chris Buttars accusing the mayor of having "attracted the entire gay community to come and live in Salt Lake County." However, when a 2004 vote came trying to eliminate any form of gay marriage in Salt Lak, 63% of the city population voted against banning same-sex marriage.

The city is home to a thriving gay population. There are over a dozen gay and lesbian bars, (technically "private clubs" due to a weird city provision that's not worth going into here), that range from an eco-friendly bar called JAM to a lesbian dive called Mo' Diggity's. 15,000 people marched in last year's gay pride parade and the city, despite the dominance of Temple Square does not have a Mormon majority.

Now, Provo Utah, is a crazy conservative backwater, but even there, people are fighting for gays and lesbians. In 2005, students at Provo High School created a gay-straight alliance. The Deseret News reported at the time:

"We have actually a lot of sexual harassment in the school that you really don't notice until you sit down and think about it," said Provo High senior Kaisha Medford. "It's not (the administration of) Provo High's fault. They're doing everything they can. It's just like commentary made by people. It's a lot of things you hear in the classrooms, locker rooms."

Medford and others are now leading the effort for the club. About 30 students have expressed interest.

"I haven't heard any direct resistance," Medford said. "I've heard a couple of people that were not in favor of it. I haven't campaigned in the halls, but most of the people don't seem to have a problem with it; and if they do, they haven't expressed it."

The students had been struggling, however, to find a teacher willing to act as an adviser until Provo High special education teacher Mary Athetosis stepped forward last month.

"I went to almost everyone in the school," Medford said. "She was my last resort. I went to almost everyone I knew and some teachers I didn't know and some teachers that said they might do it, and then said they wouldn't. We basically went door-to-door" throughout the school."

Some parents tried to shut the group down and the district refused. They then tried to make permission slips a requirement for all clubs and the district refused, saying that it would violate federal law. Finally, in desperation some parents argued that the club violated a state law that prevented schools from "discussing or promoting sexual activities except within marriage", but district officials responded that they could not, and would not, infringe on their students free speech. The club remains to this day.

Walk through the halls of power in Utah and you will find three openly gay state legislators. Christine Johnson and Jackie Biskupski serve in the State House and Scott McCoy serves in the Senate. All three represent Salt Lake City districts.

Johnson has used her postion to be a tireless advocate for gay and transgender people. Her signature bill extends nondiscrimination protections to gay and transgender Utahns, and in it's laest incarnation extends that protection to housing as well. However, she's quick to pint out that she is a representative for all the people she serves and points out that only 20% of the bills she works on are LGBT related. Still, she revels in being a progressive voice in Utah, telling QSaltLake:

"I'm also really pleased that my constituents are only supportive when I go out on a limb for them,. When I make a statement on the floor that's perhaps a little more brazen or direct, or maybe [support] an unconventional theory that's very left, instead of getting criticism from my constituents, they remember it and are very appreciative. I consider it a luxury to be that progressive voice on the Hill."

Common Ground

The latest battle for LGBt equality in Utah is the state's direct response to Prop. 8. Sponsored by Equality Utah, the initiative challenges the Mormon Church to live up to their dissembling rhetoric. After Prop. 8 passed,the Mormon Church says that it "does not object to rights for same-sex couples regarding hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment rights, or probate rights" and so, the Common Grounds Initiative aims to put those very protections into law in Utah through four bills being introduced in the Senate this year.

It's an uphill battle. Just yesterday, the first bill, introduced by Sen. Scott McCoy, which would extend wrongful death protections to gays and lesbians, died in committee.

At last weekend's really in support of Common Ground, one gay California transplant to Utah explained that Utah doesn't have the market cornered on hate:

"Thomas Rowbottom, a bisexual man from Sacramento, California, and Alex Bright, a gay man from Florida. Rowbottom describing how he lost his job at a hospital chain because of his sexual orientation. Even in states known for being gay-friendly, Rowbottom said, anti-gay discrimination is a problem.

Upon moving to Utah earlier this month, Rowbottom said he thought few people in the Beehive State cared about gay rights. But after seeing support for demonstrations like that day's, Rowbottom said he was convinced that "the fight is not dead in Utah."

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