Meet Utah’s Newest Gay Activist: Jacob Whipple

Jacob Whipple didn’t necessarily set out to be a gay leader; he just wanted to marry a handsome swimmer from California.

A member of the Queer Utah Aquatic Club, Whipple met Drew Cloud during this year’s International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics Championships in Washington, D.C. Although Cloud was working with the competition—specifically, a water polo team from West Hollywood—Whipple describes their meeting as “love at first sight.”

Seriously. “We spent 24/7 [together] from that time on for the rest of the tournament,” he explains. “On that first date we had lunch with my team, and then we went out and saw all the monuments while they were lit up at night.”

“I could see where things were going and I wanted them to go there, but I was so afraid because I had given up on all those happily ever after stories,” Whipple recounts. So he made the following deal with his new love: they had to wait three full dates before planning anything. The tournament counted as the first date, and dates two and three involved each man visiting the other for a week. When Cloud came to Utah for date four, Whipple proposed to him. They set their wedding date for April 11, 2009 in California, where the state supreme court had struck down a provision banning gay marriage a month before that fateful tournament.

And then came election night. Like many across the country Whipple and his friends threw an election night party as they watched the election results pour in. When Ohio turned blue, Whipple cheered because he “knew” Obama would win. And yet, Proposition 8, the controversial ballot measure that would overturn the judges’ ruling, gnawed in the back of his mind. Whipple followed the numbers on the vote until 4:30 a.m. when exhaustion finally drove him to bed. In the morning, he discovered that the measure had passed by a narrow margin.

Like thousands of hopeful gay couples, Whipple had gone from engaged to “in a long term relationship” in less than 24 hours.

It was, as Whipple puts it, “devastating.” But he didn’t remain devastated for very long. On Nov. 5, Whipple saw news footage of anti-Proposition 8 demonstrations in California.

“From what I heard it was up to 100,000 people in West Hollywood marching up Sunset Avenue, blocking traffic and marching past the CNN building,” he remembers. The next day brought news of protests in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“I remember seeing this on the news and thinking, this is great,” Whipple says. “We’re actually standing up for our rights and not rolling over and taking it like we have so many other times before when states have passed same-sex marriage bans.”

“We’ve let HRC and Lambda Legal do their best to try and preserve some of those rights and win some back, but what have we as a gay community done for ourselves?” he continues. “We sit there and sign petitions from the comfort of our own home and send donations so we feel like we’re a part of things but we haven’t done anything.”

And then, he got an idea that would change not only the balance of power in Utah, but Utah’s place in the 21st Century’s gay rights movement.

Why couldn’t he do something, too?

“As a gay man and a Salt Lake City resident [I thought] we needed to tell the church they had no right to put our rights up to a vote, to go into another state and ask people to take away our happiness and our relationships,” Whipple says, referring to the Utah’-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ much-publicized efforts to raise volunteer and financial support for Proposition 8.

And so, taking a nod from President-elect Obama’s internet-savvy campaign, Whipple sent a text message to 100 people in his cell phone’s address book: why don’t we protest, too? Within five minutes, 20 people agreed

“Once I got those I was like, ‘you know what, maybe we should really do this.’” So like many other impromptu activists Whipple advertised the event on his Facebook page, and called the Salt Lake City Police Department to see if he needed a permit for the protest.

Ten minutes later, the historic Nov. 7 Temple Square protest was in business.

Mormon Boy

Whipple’s road to gay fiancé and activist was long and sometimes difficult, as it often is for many gay Mormons. Although born in Salt Lake City, Whipple grew up in North Carolina where he attended services at an LDS ward house.

“I had an idea at the age of 12 that I was gay and was trying to get over that,” he remembers. “[I thought], hopefully, if I went on a mission God would fix me, and if I went to BYU I would find a girl I could fall in love with.”

Whipple indeed served a full two-year mission in Argentina and met a nice young lady at Brigham Young University. But try though he did, the last part of his plan just wouldn’t come true.

“I did have this girl I’d been dating at BYU for about a month,” he remembers. “After that month I realized I had never kissed her. It wasn’t because I was respecting her as a person; I didn’t kiss her because I didn’t want to. So after that I was like, ‘You know what, this hasn’t gone away. It is a part of me.’”

Whipple dropped his girlfriend and his university and enrolled in the University of Utah. He then began a “grueling year and a half” journey to self-acceptance. Although he no longer practices the faith of his childhood, he has not yet asked the LDS church to remove his name from its records.

“I’m kind of surprised I don’t have a letter in my mailbox from them,” he laughs, referring to the summons to a disciplinary council Mormons sometimes get when they disobey church teaching.  “I don’t know what they’re going to do with that.”

How to Assemble a Rally in 36 Hours or Less

One thing Whipple didn’t know on Nov. 6 was just how big the rally would get. But as any tech-addicted queer person can attest, the sky is often the limit when it comes to viral messages. Before Whipple knew it, his friends were text messaging friends, who were then text messaging their friends. Somewhere along the line, events appeared on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. A few even resorted to the “old-fashioned” method of going door to door, to make sure that gays and allied straights across the valley knew what was going on.

Eventually, word of the rally reached KUTV Channel 4, who called Whipple requesting an interview. When the story aired on the 6:00 p.m. news Fox 13 and KUTV Channel 2 also set up interviews. By 7:00 p.m. on Nov. 6 Whipple was scheduled to talk with every TV station in the valley and both the Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune.

When reporters asked how many protesters Whipple hoped to see, he told them 1,000—surely an ambitious goal. He never imagined the Salt Lake City Police Department would estimate 5,000 at the rally’s peak.

From the makeshift stage in City Creek Park’s southeast corner Whipple says he saw nothing but a sea of signs. Moving further north for a better view, Whipple then realized that the protesters had completely packed the park. Listening to the cheers of “separate church and state” and Barack Obama’s ubiquitous campaign slogan “yes we can,” echoing from the surrounding buildings at whose windows more than a few curious onlookers had assembled, Whipple was profoundly moved.

What had started as one man’s reaction to a hurtful and bigoted legislative action had grown, in less than two day’s time, into a movement that headlines across the country would proclaim for days. Indeed, every single news station in the valley was on hand to cover the story, which would dominate the nightly news all weekend long.

But what, Whipple wondered, would happen next week?

Looking to the Future

As Whipple began planning a national protest for Nov. 22, he got word of Join the Impact Salt Lake City, a demonstration slated for Nov. 15. Not wanting to interfere, Whipple and other organizers decided to move the date to Jan. 24, 2009—four days after Obama’s inauguration.

However, Whipple stresses that this day will be different than the ones in November. Instead of protesting the Yes on 8 campaign and the LDS church’s involvement, this rally, called the All for One Initiative, will look to the future of gay rights in the U.S.

“If we continue on in this route all we’re going to do is negatively effect the movement we could produce with all this energy,” Whipple explains. “We need to actively take this energy, this motivation, this activism climate and direct it into productive, effective and attainable goals.”

The goals of which Whipple speaks are many. First, he wants gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender legislators and organizational leaders to give speeches across the country on Jan. 24 to tell those assembled how they can become activists in their own cities by doing such things as advocating for such things as hospital visitation, employment nondiscrimination laws and domestic partner registries.

He also wants to encourage the new president to stand with the many gay people who voted for him by ending such things as the military’s don’t ask, don’t tell policy and the Defense of Marriage Act, which forbids the federal government from recognizing gay marriages and allows states not to recognize gay marriages performed in other states. He would also like Obama’s help in passing a national employment nondiscrimination act that covers sexual orientation and gender identity.

“We need to stand up and let him know we’re here and we want our rights back,” Whipple says, noting that Obama has publicly spoken out against don’t ask, don’t tell, DOMA and even Proposition 8.

Noting that Obama’s parents—a white woman and a black man—could not have married a few decades ago thanks to laws forbidding interracial marriage, Whipple adds that gays need Obama to step forward for their rights just as people of all races stepped forward to support African-American equality in the 1960s.

“We need him to fight for our rights because who knows what kind of leaders can come from our community when we are on the same solid ground as rest of our society,” he explains.

He also hopes that the initiative’s Web site (allforoneinitiative.org) can become a “one stop shop” for educating “every local GLBT community” in the country about gay-specific legislative measures in their communities and volunteer opportunities.

“We’re hoping this web site will become that center of information so that we can be the activists we want to be right now,” he says. “We just don’t have the info now to be effective and I want to bring that to our nation.”

And then there is the matter of his true love. As he plans and waits for 2009, Whipple says the ceremony will go forward as planned, if not when visits his partner for Thanksgiving (provided California is still issuing marriage licenses because of pending litigation against Proposition 8), then on April 11, 2009, with or without the state’s approval.

“It’s still a wedding and our friends and family are still planning on attending. We will give our vows before them,” he insists.

For more information on the All for One Initiative visit allforoneinitiative.org. Like many activist sites created in Proposition 8’s wake, it is still under construction.

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