The University of Utah Debate Team and Department of Communication hosted a parliamentary debate and panel discussion on anti-gay discrimination in the workplace on the night of Thursday, Nov. 15.
The debate team opened the evening with an hour-long debate on the resolution: "Should the state of Utah pass legislation establishing protections from discrimination regarding sexual orientation and identity in the workplace?”
University of Utah students Anastasia Neidrich and Chrissy Hayes argued in favor of the resolution. They argued that forbidding workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity would lead to an increased quality of life for Utah’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender population and a boost in Utah’s economy because gays would feel welcome to visit the state.
“Utah, as well as America, has the moral obligation to work against discrimination,” said Hayes, citing previous moves by national and state governments to eliminate discrimination based on race, sex and religion.
The opposition team of Nina Hall and Danielle Hughes maintained that legislation targeting anti-gay and transgender workplace discrimination would encourage businesses who disagreed with the law to leave the state, and take legislative time and money away from pressing topics like education and the high numbers of uninsured Utahns. They also said such legislation would compromise Utah’s values, particularly as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which opposes gay sex and same-sex marriage) is the state’s largest employer.
After the debate, audience members were asked to vote for the winning team based only on arguments they presented. The affirmative team won by a two-thirds majority, or 99 to 47 audience votes.
The second half of the evening consisted of a panel discussion that expounded on the debate’s resolution. Its members consisted of Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan; Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City; Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum; and Will Carlson, manager of public policy for Equality Utah. Each panelist was allowed eight minutes to speak on his or her position.
Johnson said that the government must sometimes pass laws to forbid discrimination because America has historically been slow to end discrimination against minority groups.
“Historically [movements to end discrimination] succeed after decades sometimes, and often it comes as a surprise to the majority that discrimination even exists,” she said.
Although Buttars agreed with Johnson that gays should not be discriminated against, he called the hypothetical proposal “another way to bring about Affirmative Action” and a move to push aside “200 years of American moral values” — a move that would “change America for the worse.”
“You’re going to have a wave of lawsuits on both sides,” he said. “If I don’t get hired and I’m a gay, I can sue [based on that].”
Responding to Buttars, Carlson said that workplace discrimination lawsuits based on sexual orientation or gender identity accounted for five lawsuits out of every 10,000 people — a number on par with every other group covered by non-discrimination laws.
“Everyone has a sexual orientation, a race, a gender identity and a sex,” he said. “Two of those are protected, the other two are not.”
He also argued that a healthy economy was dependent on fairness in the workplace, and in “welcoming people on the margins.”
“Anti-gay discrimination depresses the economy,” he said. “When employees see a good worker get fired, the disparity between [the firing] and hard work causes confusion and worry.”
Ruzicka, however, said that the hypothetical law might take the concept of workplace discrimination too far.
“What is the definition of discrimination regarding sexual orientation and identity? How far will that go? If someone is reading a Bible at work and the Bible says [homosexuality] is wrong, will that count?” she asked.
She also said that such a law could lead to gay employees alleging discrimination if their places of employment didn’t offer benefits to same-sex partners — something they do not have to do according to Amendment 3, the amendment to the state constitution that sought to define marriage as the union between a man and a woman. Utah voters overwhelmingly passed Amendment 3 in 2004.
"We shouldn’t pass this [law] because all people enjoy equality under the law,” she said. “Gays are single and get the same benefits as singles do.”
In her rebuttal, Johnson said that a law to ban workplace discrimination against gays and transgender people would not apply to small businesses and religious organizations, and would not require domestic partnership benefits to be granted.
“We need to demystify the gay agenda, and here it is: For members of the gay community to go to work, support our families and be productive members of society,” she said to applause.
After their speeches, the panelists fielded questions from the audience, which included several gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people including Dr. Marci Bowers, one of the top gender reassignment surgeons in the country. Bowers, who was in town to speak at the Utah Pride Center for Transgender Awareness Month, told Buttars and Ruzicka about being fired from her job at a clinic after transitioning from a man to a woman.
“How would you explain to my children why I lost my job after being the clinic’s most favored physician and the highest earner?” she asked.
“That’s a tough one,” Buttars said. “I don’t know what I’d say but I have total empathy for you.”
Ruzicka told Bowers that her own children had been subject to discrimination — including employment discrimination — because of their shared last name. She told Bowers that while she “didn’t expect the legislature to pass laws and make things OK” for them, she said overcoming such discrimination was “life’s lesson.”
“You tell your childen what happened to you and how you overcame it,” she said.