In the wake of nation-wide protests against Proposition 8, the controversial constitutional amendment that revoked the right of California’s same-sex couples to marry, a group of gay-rights activists are organizing an event that they hope will lead to the creation of a national equality day for all Americans: a march on Salt Lake City slated for the spring equinox.
Like many people across the country, organizer Shawn Cunningham, a former Utah resident who now lives in California, was troubled by the passage of Proposition 8 on the same night voters elected Barack Obama as the nation’s first black president.
“I think the contrast of Prop. 8 in the face of that was disturbing to say the least,” said Cunningham, who identifies as straight and has a lesbian mother. “And it just occurred to me that not since the 60s when we saw white people standing with black people and marching on Washington [D.C.], when people who weren’t part of that constituent stood up and said, ‘This isn’t where things should be going, we’re a greater country than that,’ I guess the mantra that started develop in my head was that if the rights of some of us are infringed, then the rights of all of us are diminished.”
Inspired by Obama’s election and the Proposition 8 protests that began shortly after, Cunningham and several of his friends put together the idea for the march on Nov. 7—the same day that thousands of Utahns demonstrated in front of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ headquarters to protest the church’s volunteer and financial support of the measure.
However, the church’s high-profile involvement is not the only reason Cunningham and other organizers chose this location. As their Web site, equalnox.org, explains: “Utah was founded by a people chased across the country in search of their freedom of religious expression. Utah is a state of pioneers, a state of great beauty, and of great contrast.”
“I think there’s a lot of irony in Utah’s Mormon church meddling in this type of issue,” Cunningham added.
Ironic or not, the struggles 19th Century Mormons had with the U.S. government over issues such as polygamy and religious freedom are emblematic of the march’s ultimate goal: to draw Americans of all races, sexual orientations and religious affiliations together around the common cause of universal equal rights.
For Cunningham, structuring the concept behind the march is similar to the work he does at his marketing job—that is, taking control of and redirecting a message. In this case, moving the discussion of gay rights (such as marriage equality) away from messages based in the anger, vengeance and fear that he said dominated discourse during the Proposition 8 debate.
“In a proposition that so closely won, a lot of people pulled the lever so to speak based on lies,” he said. “You saw a lot of advertising in California that was just patently false, saying that kids are going to be influenced by gay marriages and churches forced to marry gay people.”
Rather, Cunningham hopes to “elevate” the discussion on gay rights by showing that these rights are a part of everyone’s civil rights, regardless of orientation. Already he and his team have taken steps towards this restructuring. For example, they have scheduled the march for the spring equinox, a day that symbolizes such hopeful concepts as rebirth, renewal and life. And while some gay rights activists have called on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens to boycott Utah, Cunningham discourages this idea.
“I think this is a bad idea,” he wrote on the march’s Facebook page. “Although we are planning a ‘favored’ business list of companies in Utah that are not bigoted. Nevertheless, this march is not about ‘confrontation.’ Our message will be better received if we are respectful and inclusive of others that share the mindset.”
And now is the right time, he added, for others to receive this message.
“[I’ve heard about] Mormons arguing in wards over this,” he said. “That’s an opportunity, because there’s an opening to grow awareness.”
While Cunningham said he had no interest in making people change their religious beliefs or practices, he said it was time for people of all religions to accept others as full American citizens.
“If you don’t respect that we all lose,” he said.
Ultimately, Cunningham would like to see March 21 established as a national day to recognize equality where Americans “shine the flashlight into the dark corners of the room and keep this kind of shit from happening again.” To that effect, he said he would like to work with a number of “like-minded” groups across the country. His team, he added, is already reaching out to a number of Utah civil rights group to ask for their help in organizing the day.
Although Cunningham knows that he and his cohorts have a lot of work ahead of them, he said he is excited … and optimistic.
“I have a theory bout Obama that we would have never had an Obama without a Bush,” he said. “And if you follow that same line of thinking, perhaps we’d never be having this conversation without Prop. 8 happening and some of the other legislation that passed in other states. Maybe sometimes it has to bet so bad that people stop and say, ‘Wait what’s going on? This isn’t right.’”
The March on Salt Lake City’s Facebook page can be found at tinyurl.com/58vzrz. Its Web site equalnox.org is currently under construction.