After Utah voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in 2004 and Equality Utah’s Don’t Amend Campaign closed up shop, Mike Thompson thought his time in the Beehive State was over. After several months serving as Don’t Amend’s fundraiser and deputy campaign manager he was now heading to Kansas City to work as a consultant.
But in early 2005, not even a year after Don’t Amend entered the annals of gay Utah history, the gay rights organization was contacting him again. Executive director Michael Mitchell had just taken a job with the American Civil Liberties Union. Would Thompson like to interview for his position, the group wanted to know.
“I loaded up and came back to Salt Lake,” says Thompson, who has held that very job for the last three years.
“It’s been good,” he continues. “I have to say that my friends thought I was crazy to come the first time and really crazy to come back the second time to do the work we’re doing here, but my response has always been if change is going to take place on a national scale it’s the red states that have got to have some conversion. I thought [taking this job] was a tremendous opportunity to work in the reddest of red states.”
And Thompson knows a lot about red states. He grew up in Tulsa, Okla. Where evangelical Christianity dominates local culture and politics in much the same way the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints holds sway in Utah.
“I guess there’s comfort in the familiar, and I think what I noticed when I first came to Salt Lake City was a similar ecclesiastical cloud that hovers over the city,” says Thompson. “It influences everything.”
Like many gay Utahns, Thompson grew up in what he calls “a fairly conservative community where religion played a huge part in people’s lives” and found at a young age that his sexual orientation clashed against his cultural surroundings. Although Thompson realized he was gay in high school he didn’t come out until moving to Chicago to start his first post-college job as a consultant for an oil company.
“Even then I had to reel it back in,” he says of that time. “I actually went from being very out to being very closeted to work through that whole religious component. It was an ongoing process to me until I was in my early 30s. One of the things I had to do was to learn to reconcile my own faith with my sexual orientation. To me faith is such a personal thing in that the intimacy with our creator we all have to arrive at our own conclusions. I think as a Baptist kid from Oklahoma it wasn’t necessarily an easy process, but it was certainly enriching.”
After four years of traveling the country for his first consulting job, Thompson found himself back in Tulsa. Here he took his fist job at a nonprofit organization, serving on the board of a school that served special needs students from kindergarten to eighth grade. During his stint on the board and later as executive director the school went from “a struggling and nearly failing program” to acquiring a ten acre campus, expanding its programs and substantially increasing its funding. After this he served as a consultant for several nonprofit organizations in Denver, teaching them how to structure their fundraising practices and their mission statements.
“In my corporate background I worked with individual business owners to help them strengthen and solidify their businesses, so I learned some skills I got to apply to nonprofits to help them reach their potential,” Thompson says. “I think that’s what my passion is –– building organizations so they can operate at their fullest capacity and have the broadest reach and impact.”
Thompson carried these skills over to Equality Utah. Soon after taking the helm Thompson lead the organization through what he calls “a re-branding exercise” in which the organization got its now-familiar logo and tagline, “Working for a fair and just Utah.”
“We needed to go from being on the defensive to working to advance policy that supports LGBT Utahns and their families,” Thompson explains. As part of its sea change Equality Utah also opened dialogue with conservative legislators (traditionally known for their opposition to gay-positive legislation) about creating a more just government that includes gays as full legal citizens. It also began drafting proposed legislation. In the 2008 session Equality Utah-sponsored bills seeking overturn Utah’s gay adoption ban, add sexual orientation and gender identity to statewide employment nondiscrimination laws, and to create statewide anti-bullying standards in schools appeared on Capitol Hill (Gov. Jon Huntsman signed this bill into law in March). Although the adoption and fair workplace bills are still struggling, Thompson called them keys to abolishing the biggest legal hurdles gay Utahns face.
“The workplace bill represents a broader breakthrough on the broader issue of discrimination, getting people to acknowledge sexual orientation and gender identity on a broader perspective,” Thompson explains. The adoption bill that would remove cohabiting proscription [in Utah law], that would be the breakthrough bill in the area of family law. … [O]nce we get past those hurdles, it would be easier to advance other legislation because we’ve broken through the biggest barriers.”
Equality Utah has come a long way under Thompson’s leadership. In the last three years it has doubled its staff and gone from endorsing a handful of gay-friendly political candidates to nearly 40 in this election cycle. Understandably, the executive director’s life is “a bit consumed” by his responsibilities. In the leisure hours he does have, Thompson says he enjoys spending time with friends and family.
“I love doing what I do,” he says. “I love to see the progress and I’m grateful to be in a community that is passionate about this work. I think together we’re accomplishing some great things.”