Equality Utah: Common Ground Will Go On

Just days after the last Common Ground Initiative bill died in committee, Equality Utah held a public meeting to tell gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Utahns and their straight allies what the gay rights group plans to do next.

The initiative was initially named Common Ground because it sought to find agreement between gays and the LDS Church on protections for gay people to which the church did not object. These included workplace and housing nondiscrimination protections, probate and inheritance rights, and the right to make medical decisions for a partner in case of his or her incapacitation.

Equality Utah Director Mike Thompson began the meeting by thanking his staff and the broader community of gay and straight people for their help in promoting the four bills that comprised the initiative.

 “We have never had support from the community the way we have in the last few months. This is amazing and humbling and tells us we’re going to get somewhere,” he said, noting that the legislative hearings on each bill had been attended mostly by Common Ground supporters.

Thompson pointed out that polls conducted by Equality Utah, the Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune which showed that a majority of Utahns support basic protections for gay and transgender people were promising. Still, Thompson told the crowd (who filled the Salt Lake County Council chambers) that those who expected change to happen in one legislative session would be disappointed. Rather, he likened the push for gay rights in Utah to the campaign of President Barack Obama, who waged a long, two year effort to move into the national spotlight.

“We have never stepped into the arena the way we have this year,” he said.

In the coming months and years, Thompson said that Common Ground would become a four-pronged approach. First, it would focus on getting protections for gay and transgender people passed in municipal governments. As an example of this, Thompson mentioned Salt Lake County’s adult designee program, which allows county employees to include unmarried partners—or any non-spouse adult—on their insurance plans.

The Salt Lake County Council passed this proposal on Feb. 17.

Thompson said Equality Utah would also lobby candidates they endorse to advance equal workplace and housing protections in their cities and counties, if they are elected.

Next, Thompson said Equality Utah would focus on coalition-building with like-minded groups, such as labor and environmental organizations.

“We need to think about this differently than we did in the past,” he said, noting that Equality Utah and Utah gay and transgender people must work for the good of the broader community.

He also mentioned that Equality Utah would continue its educational outreach to communities, and maintain an “approachable” attitude by conducting itself with “decorum and respect.”

“That’s who we need to be to be effective as an organization,” he said, adding that the group did not discourage those who preferred to be more confrontational in their work.

“It works for us. We’re not telling anyone else how to do it,” he said.

Thompson also said that individuals interested in advancing Common Ground could help in a number of ways: by volunteering to register voters in the districts of legislators who voted against the Common Ground bills, holding house parties for “fair-minded” candidates; and talking to their employers about domestic partner benefits.

He also encouraged individuals to run for local office, look into working on city and county boards that have vacant seats, or volunteer for gay-positive election campaigns. In illustrating the good that a volunteer can do, Thompson mentioned Gordon Storrs, a member of the Log Cabin Republicans and former legislative hopeful who had worked on Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr.’s campaign for office.

In February, Huntsman drew widespread support as well as criticism for publicly stating that he is in favor of the Common Ground Initiative, and civil unions for gay couples.

“You never know the relationships that can be created if you serve in a campaign and believe in the person who’s running,” said Thompson.

Overall, he told those gathered to keep talking about the issues: by coming out, volunteering at community festivals, or writing letters to local newspapers.

“People talk about what they’re told about, so let’s tell them,” he said.

In closing, Thompson challenged the audience to find five people and five businesses who are not currently common ground supporters and talk to them about coming onboard. The more people who support Common Ground, he said, the more pressure legislators who voted against the bills this session will feel to rethink their votes.

Ultimately, he encouraged people to “stay engaged and enthusiastic,” and not to feel discouraged by defeat.

“No other community, nowhere in a red state, is doing the work this community is doing around this issue,” he said. “We have the opportunity to offer hope to organizations in Alabama, Oklahoma, Arkansas, that it can be done here.”

For more information on Common Ground visit equalityutah.org.

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