When a legislative session ends in Utah, the gut reaction is to act as if we?ve been hit by a hurricane and look around for the damage. For those who revel in the regressive reasoning of our state legislature, the 2008 session was filled with some wonderfully bad moments. The most infamous moment was probably the ?black baby? metaphor by Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan. From that comment and his subsequent attempts to change the subject, the rest of the state learned what lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Utahns already knew: Sen. Buttars is not sensitive in his treatment of those whom he deems as different.
Ironically, I think that Buttars was sincere when he first apologized and said that he did not mean to be racist. I think that he blended metaphors and the result was, embarrassing and Freudian as it was, different from his intent.
I met with Buttars two weeks after his baby turned ugly. He looked pretty haggard. As we spoke, we came to the conclusion that we had two things in common: both of us were on Capitol Hill trying to make things better, and both of us feel very misunderstood. Misunderstandings led to the success or defeat of most of the bills on Equality Utah?s agenda.
Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake, sponsored House Bill 89, Antidiscrimination Act Amendments. This bill would have prohibited employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Misunderstanding: Legislative leadership was not convinced that ?heterosexual? is also a sexual orientation. As a result, they saw this bill as one that only protected LGBT Utahns.
Result: this bill was held without a vote. The issue will be re-considered over the summer by an interim legislative committee.
Bullying and Hazing
Rep. Carol Moss, D-Salt Lake City, sponsored House Bill 325 Bullying and Hazing, which set minimum standards for school districts to follow in order to address and prevent all forms of bullying and hazing.
Misunderstanding: Many legislators were convinced that all children are equally at risk of becoming victims of bullying. In fact, LGBT students are at a much higher risk of bullying.
Result: This bill passed on the final day of the session.
Property and Estates
Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City, sponsored Wrongful Death Amendments, SB 73, which would have allowed people to designate who has standing in a court of law if they die due to negligence or malpractice. Currently, anyone who does not qualify as a spouse or child has no recourse if their family member dies.
Misunderstanding: Some legislators felt that any official recognition of unmarried couples would lead to an endorsement of non-traditional families.
Result: This bill passed favorably out of committee but never received a vote on the floor of the House or Senate.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Rep. Phil Riesen, D-Salt Lake City, sponsored HB 15, Control and Prevention of Sexually Transmitted Diseases. This legislation will give the Department of Health funding for an education campaign to control and prevent the spread of chlamydia and gonorrhea.
Misunderstanding: Because sponsors spoke only of how chlamydia and gonorrhea affect fertility among heterosexual females, the skyrocketing infection rates among gay males was never discussed.
Result: This bill passed on the final day of the session.
Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City, reintroduced Domestic Violence and Dating Violence Amendments with HB 247. This legislation would make it easier for victims of violence to file protective orders against their abusers. LGBT victims would have the same protections as other victims.
Misunderstanding: This bill was labeled by opponents as an attack on the right to bear arms. Never mind the consequences of keeping guns in the hands of those who are physically abusive.
Result: This bill passed out of committee but failed by a vote of 32-37 on the House floor.
Under current law, Utahns who are unmarried and cohabitate (live together in a romantic relationship) cannot foster, adopt or share parenting duties with their partners. Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, sponsored HB Bill 318 to delete the cohabitating restriction from the code, ensuring that the best interests of children take priority.
Misunderstanding: Rep. Mark Walker told me that he was against this bill because he did not think gays and lesbians should be able to adopt. He did not consider that under current law, gay and lesbian Utahns can adopt as long as they are not living with their lovers.
Result: This bill was held by the Rules Committee and never granted a hearing.
Rep. Lorie Fowlke, R-Orem, sponsored Child and Family Protections, HB 23. This bill will make it a second degree felony for parents to abandon their children. Fourty-two percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT and one in four youth who come out are kicked out of their homes. This bill will hold parents accountable for rejecting their LGBT children.
Misunderstanding: This bill was labeled as a way to hold polygamous parents responsible for kicking out their teen boys. But most homeless youth in Utah are LGBT and many were kicked out because of it.
Result: This bill passed Feb. 21.
Local Government Authority Amendments
Sen. Buttars sponsored Local Government Authority Amendments, SB 267. This bill would ?prohibit county and municipal legislative bodies from creating or establishing a registry or any other means to define, identify or recognize a domestic partnership, civil union or other domestic relationship other than marriage for any purpose.?
Misunderstanding: When Senator Buttars made his baby comment, all of his bills received a black mark.
Result: This bill was stopped before it ever got a vote on the Senate or House floor.
Revision to Local Government
Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights, sponsored Revisions to Local Government, SB 299. The bill will allow Salt Lake City?s registry to go forward as long as the city changes the name of the registry.
Misunderstanding: Many legislators were convinced that a registered domestic partnership is identical to a licensed marriage. Apparently these legislators only got married for the certificate and the family rate on tennis lessons at Liberty Park.
Result: This bill passed the final day of the session.
There are lessons to be learned from the 2008 legislative session and its many misunderstandings. One lesson is that in this conservative climate we are more likely to pass legislation if we can emphasize how it helps everyone and not ?just? the queers. Another lesson is that most legislators don?t yet understand how our families are affected under current law. Both of these lessons call for more involvement from everyone in our community. A representative from Taylorsville told me that ?convincing me that there?s a need for legislation that helps you is your job, not mine.? May heaven bless those legislators on the Hill who understand our community. And may we help all the other legislators understand that securing equal rights for LGBT Utahns and their families will not just help us, but will reaffirm the inherent worth of every Utahn.