In the wake of a controversial legislative compromise that put all gay-related bills to bed for the 2010 Legislative Session, the Utah Pride Center held a two hour public forum at the University of Utah, to allow members of the community to voice their concerns about the compromise and to suggest ways in which Utah’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community can become politically stronger and more cohesive.
The much-discussed compromise was the brainchild of openly lesbian Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City, and Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper. Announced just days after the Legislative Session opened Jan. 25, Johnson and other lawmakers agreed to pull all gay and transgender-related bills for the session if Republican lawmakers dropped all bills seeking to shoot down ordinances passed last year in Salt Lake City and County that added gay and transgender people to housing and employment nondiscrimination laws. Instead, lawmakers would allow both ordinances to take effect and would study them and the question of whether gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Utahns faced discrimination throughout 2010.
However, the compromise upset many in the community who felt that Johnson had made the decision without input from the public or from other gay and transgender leaders. And the upset only worsened after Senate and House Republicans called off the formal study and Johnson as well as other gay-friendly lawmakers did not contest the move. Heated discussions about the compromise took place across Facebook, most notably in comments to a post made by openly gay former State Sen. Scott McCoy. As they watched these discussions and others, a number of community leaders called for a discussion to address concerns on all side of the debate, and specifically the notion that Johnson and others were asking gay and transgender people to accept the compromise without complaint.
Center Executive Director Valerie Larabee facilitated the discussion. To keep comments orderly and to give all who wanted to speak a chance, she asked those interested in speaking to write any comments, questions or ideas on a card and to pass it forward. After reading their card aloud, Larabee then gave them a microphone to speak. She also read comments from individuals who were unable to attend.
Naturally, several questions and comments were addressed to Johnson, who sat in the front row of the conference room with her 18-year-old daughter.
Johnson explained that the compromise had come about after Stephenson alerted her to the fact that “bad things were coming down the pipe” this session that would have potentially killed the ordinances and asked her how they could stop them.
“We thought that if we just put the [pro-gay] bills down and suggested a study [about the ordinances], a study would be neutral,” she said.
In the past three years, Johnson has attempted to get a bill like Salt Lake City’s ordinance passed on a statewide level. In all of her attempts, she said, lawmakers could not ask her deeper questions about such a law than what bathrooms transgender people would use at the workplaces if it was instated. “So I thought a study not coming from me but other entities [like the Utah Labor Commission and conservative think tank the Sutherland Institute] would be more palatable,” she explained.
But the study fell apart, Johnson continued, when the Legislature discovered that the Labor Commission was flooded with cases and in no position to engage in such a study. “Things snowballed from there about how the study could happen,” she said.
When asked by Pat Jarvis if she thought the community could trust Republicans not to break the truce by running anti-ordinance bills, Johnson said “absolutely.”
“They don’t want to go toe to toe with the LDS Church this session,” she said, referring to the church’s support for the city’s ordinances. “They don’t want to make a decision on something that hasn’t been enacted yet.” (The ordinances are not set to take effect until April 2). Johnson also noted that legislators on all sides of the aisle have their hands full with ethics reform and the state’s budget crisis.
“They wouldn’t come to us if they didn’t have something to lose,” she said, adding that the pro-gay bills were still enrolled as a measure of “holding the truce in place.”
While stating his appreciation for Johnson’s work, attorney Will Carlson, formerly Equality Utah’s Manager of Public Policy, said that he nonetheless felt “betrayed” by the agreement and ignored by Johnson, whose advice she had solicited two days before announcing the compromise to the press. Further, Carlson said he did not think that the Legislature had any real chance of passing a bill that would preempt the ordinances because of the LDS Church’s support for such laws.
“By agreeing to drop these [pro-gay] bills we sabotaged a technique to get our message out for the year,” he said.
Even if a preemption bill had passed, Carlson said that Utah would have had an opportunity to make a strong case for a federal nondiscrimination law that would have included sexual orientation and gender identity.
Along with the compromise, a number of attendees expressed anger over comments made by Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, who stated that the Legislature would take action against gays and lesbians if they engaged in any “offensive” behavior. Although Waddoups later said he meant only that people on both sides of the gay rights debate should avoid antagonizing each other, many in the community took his remarks as a threat to “shut up.”
“I don’t believe it’s OK to allow some legislator to speak in a threatening manor to the LGBT community,” wrote Gail Turpin, who was not in attendance, on a comment card.
“That doesn’t work for me. I’m not going to step down and be quiet,” said activist Eric Ethington, who asked all present to attend a sit-in at the capitol on the following day to talk to Waddoups and demonstrate that “you don’t get to step over our rights, ever.” He also invited everyone to take valentines to Waddoups and other Republican legislators on Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to discuss the situation with him.
But the night’s discussion did not only dwell on the compromise and Waddoups’ statements. Audience members brought up a number of other topics including how to promote gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender visibility in Utah; how to lobby for change beyond showing up for allies and protests; tips for winning potential allies over to the cause of gay rights; and whether to ask the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation should be called upon to address comments such as Waddoups’.
Utah Pride Center board member called on those present to keep future discussions on Facebook about issues like the compromise civil, particularly when speaking about and to transgender people, many of whom are not out as transgender.
Similarly, University of Utah student Andre Molette asked the mostly white audience to remember that the needs of queer people of color are often different from their own, and that Utah’s predominantly white movement is not addressing issues such as poverty and homelessness that face many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Utahns of color.
“What about our other communities, what about our Latino community?” he asked. “Me personally and my fellow peers have been told to keep our business and to be quiet,” he said. “I’m here to tell you no more. We’re not doing this anymore.”
When asked if Waddoups’ call for municipal governments to stop passing gay and transgender-inclusive ordinances carried any legislative weight, Equality Utah Executive Director Brandie Balken reassured all present that Equality Utah would continue to work with municipal governments who expressed interest in such ordinances.
“He can hope that and encourage that, but he has not mandated that, and we will continue to go forward,” she said.
Balken also encouraged those present to reach out to their friends and family in coming months to discuss the importance of ordinances like Salt Lake City’s.
Overall, Johnson assured the audience of 150 that neither she nor any of Utah’s gay rights leaders wanted those who disagreed with them to stay silent.
“No one should feel they’re less empowered because they have a different idea,” she said, noting that multiple perspectives and strategies were necessary to keep Utah’s community vibrant.