Whether she’s addressing a group of anti-Proposition 8 demonstrators or trying to teach heterosexual Utah legislators that they, too, have a sexual orientation, openly lesbian Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City, has been an outspoken, erudite and patient voice for queer Utahns and their rights since she took office in 2006. This session, her bill which seeks to extend nondiscrimination protections to gay and transgender Utah workers is up for a second hearing on Capitol Hill—now with a section asking for equal protections in housing as well.
Given all of Johnson’s hard work and dedication to Utah’s gay and transgender population, it’s sometimes hard to remember that she has only been in office for two years, after winning her seat from Ross Romero, who left to run for a state senate seat. It’s even more difficult to think that she has only been active in Utah’s political scene since 2003.
Born on the East Coast, Johnson grew up in South Carolina and Virginia until age 13, when her family moved to Utah. Her mother having joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when Johnson was eight years old, Johnson spent her adolescence as a practicing Mormon living in Provo—a place that did not suit her very well.
“It didn’t seem to be a good fit for me,” Johnson remembers, noting that she left the state at age 18, returning only for a few years to attend Dixie State College. Due partly to her Mormon upbringing, Johnson says she came out as a lesbian much later in life than many would suspect—at age 31, and after marrying and having a child.
“I think there were definitely some societal pressure weighing in that caused me to shut that door, but it kept becoming an issue,” says Johnson. “I think there is only one lifestyle that is advocated for young women within the Mormon Church: It is your goal to marry a returned missionary and have a family. [Being gay] had never even dawned on me. At one point I remember my mother saying, when my daughter was six months old, if I was lesbian. I asked, ‘What are you talking about?’ I was completely in denial. She had made it clear to me at that point that it’s not something she would support if I were.”
Although Johnson said she had been “apprehensive and a bit scared” to acknowledge her true sexual orientation, she finally “gave in” after several attempts at heterosexual relationships. She says she is “much happier” now that she has admitted the truth about herself.
“I remember meeting my first partner and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh! This was supposed to be what it feels like. Why did I resist this so long?’” she says, laughing.
In fact, it was ultimately one such partner who brought Johnson back to the Beehive State in 2001. When Johnson moved from Baltimore, Maryland to live with her, she remembers being shocked when she encountered Utah’s political climate as a gay person for the first time.
“I was astounded when I moved here and turned on TV and saw [Senator] Chris Buttars and [Eagle Forum President] Gayle Ruzicka talking about gay people in the state — their unapologetic disapproval and willingness to discriminate,” she remembers. “I couldn’t figure out why more people weren’t upset or advocating for themselves. Perhaps it’s because I’d come from a life of intensifying as a heterosexual woman and [assuming I’d have these rights. It was a bit of a shock to learn that the decision to be with a woman and be myself would cause me to lose all those privileges.”
But Johnson didn’t let herself remain shocked for long. She quickly lent her support to several gay rights organizations in Utah, ultimately serving as the Vice Chair for HRC Utah and a board member of local gay rights group, Equality Utah. And in 2003 when Buttars ran a bill that sought to alter Utah code to define marriage as the union between a man and a woman, Rep. Jackie Biskupski asked Johnson to testify against the bill before the legislature. Her testimony was all over the news that night, and her voice only became stronger during the next session, in which Amendment 3, the constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage in the state, called many activists to arms.
“The more they pushed, the more I wanted to prove them wrong,” she remembers. Yet, while Johnson was more than comfortable speaking out against anti-gay legislation, she hadn’t given much thought to doing so on the House floor.
“I thought perhaps one day I’d run for office, but I didn’t expect it would happen in my 30s,” she explains. But that all changed when Romero called her, and told Johnson she should run for his vacant seat.
“I was astounded and just kind of dove in not knowing what I was headed for,” she says.
In the campaign that followed, Johnson utilized her “basic grass roots networking” and her support from such local political movers and shakers as Stacey Adams, Jan Lovett and former Utah Democratic Party chair Donald Dunn. With their help and with a lot of determination, Johnson campaigned and won a majority vote both in Salt Lake and Summit County, and won again easily when she ran for re-election this November.
But while Johnson has supported legislation that is specifically focused on gay and transgender people, she is hardly a ‘one-issue’ politician. During her first term she wrote two successful bills: one that clarified the numbering of constitutional amendments on ballots, and another that mandated Utah manufacturers to reduce the amount of phosphorous in detergents by 2010, thus decreasing the impact on local ecosystems. In 2008 she also sponsored legislation that created a fund to retrofit antiquated diesel school bus engines, and to teach drivers how to cut down on idling. Thanks to EPA grants, Johnson estimates that 90 percent of the state’s yellow buses have been cleaned up so far.
“I think that some people on other side of the aisle and certainly my opponent in the last election wanted to frame me as a single issue person, that issue being my sexual orientation,” Johnson explains. “That’s not the case. I feel a great deal of responsibility to my LGBT community. But this session only 20 percent of the bills I’m running have to do with LGBT issues.”
Her other bills include legislation focusing on funding domestic violence shelters, providing health insurance to uninsured children and banning gifts from lobbyists. She’s also considering proposing a resolution that would ask the U.S. Congress to overturn the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.
“It’s just such a hypocritical philosophy. The fact we would ask people to serve our country and risk their lives while denying them authenticity while they are alive is just absurd,” she says.
When she is not working as a realtor, or debating a bill on the House floor, Johnson says that she enjoys spending time with her daughter, kayaking, cooking or rollerblading. And, of course, listening to her constituents.
“I’m also really pleased that my constituents are only supportive when I go out on a limb for them,” she says. “When I make a statement on the floor that’s perhaps a little more brazen or direct, or maybe [support] an unconventional theory that’s very left, instead of getting criticism from my constituents, they remember it and are very appreciative. I consider it a luxury to be that progressive voice on the Hill.”