Openly lesbian legislator Christine Johnson addressed a volunteer service organization of pro-gay LDS families about the state of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights in Utah and the steps they can take in keeping these topics at the forefront of state politics throughout 2010 and 2011.
The Salt Lake City Democrat spoke before an audience of 50 members of LDS Family Fellowship on March 28 at the University of Utah’s Social Work Auditorium. In her 60 minute presentation she discussed a number of gay and transgender-inclusive bills and resolutions that she and other legislators have been attempting to pass for years. One piece of legislation, she said, is a bill by openly gay former Sen. Scott McCoy which sought to allow individuals to designate a same-sex romantic partner as a designee in the event of a wrongful death suit.
To illustrate the need for such legislation, Johnson told the audience about a constituent who had left her a recent voicemail. When the man’s partner died shortly after an operation due to a surgeon’s negligence, Johnson said he was unable to sue for damages.
“[His partner’s family] refused to allow him to be a complainant or plaintiff on a wrongful death suit against the physician,” she said. “That meant [the couple’s] home went into foreclosure. They lost their vehicles and retirement. He was still responsible for the medical bills because his partner had been on his insurance, but they essentially lost everything. This has been four years and my partner left a message crying as if he’d lost his partner yesterday. He can’t move past that grief and it’s pretty tragic.”
Johnson also discussed her three-year effort to pass a statewide law forbidding housing and employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Her attempt this year came to an abrupt end early in the session, however, when she and other lawmakers brokered a compromise with House and Senate Republicans. In exchange for dropping all gay-related bills, Republicans agreed not to preempt gay and transgender-inclusive housing and employment ordinances in Salt Lake City and County.
The compromise angered many members of Utah’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, who said that Johnson and her colleagues had not asked them for feedback before announcing the stand down to the media.
“[The compromise] was not a decision made easily or lightly and not all members of community were on board, and I understand that,” she said.
Johnson explained that her decision to make the compromise was prompted not only by two anti-ordinance bills, but a bill that sought to let Utah opt out of the federal Matthew Shepard Act, which expanded the federal definition of hate crimes to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Likewise, she learned that McCoy’s bill (taken up this session by his replacement, Sen. Ben McAdams), would likely be held in the Senate Rules Committee all session long, meaning that it would once again fail to make it to the floor for debate.
While Johnson said she had hoped the LDS Church — which supported Salt Lake City’s ordinances last year — would support her efforts to get her housing and employment bill onto the House Floor, their support was not forthcoming, she said. Ultimately, Johnson tabled her bill seeking statewide housing and employment protections for gay and transgender people in order to protect the city and county ordinances passed in 2009. Their preservation, she said, was part of a legislative strategy to give more city and county governments time to draft and pass similar laws. Since the compromised was announced, for example, Park City, Summit County, Ogden, West Valley City and Taylorsville have expressed interest in passing gay and transgender-inclusive housing and employment laws.
When the legislature meets again, said Johnson, there will be more cities with protections in place and “it will be over a year of having Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County’s ordinances, which will make it nearly impossible for the state to overturn those ordinances.
If an attempt to strike down the ordinances goes to a Utah court, Johnson added, the court will likely see the Legislature’s lack of action on the ordinances in 2010 as an intention to let them stand.
“And once we have five or six [cities and counties with such ordinances], are they going to risk a class action suit by local governments against the state for telling them how to govern locally?” she said.
Johnson also encouraged members of LDS Family Fellowship to become active in next year’s General Legislative Session. “Next year there will be a bill that will essentially cause the state not to have to subscribe to the Matthew Shepard Act,” she said. “You all need to get up to the Hill when that happens and oppose that. It does us no harm to participate in that [act] and does us a great deal of benefit in offering protections and recourse.” Utah’s own hate crimes law, she added, is inadequate because it only allows people to sue in cases of misdemeanors.
“That means if someone writes fag on your car you can consider that a hate crime and sue them, but [for] anything that’s felonious [like assault] we don’t have recourse to increase penalty beyond what the state has,” she explained.
Johnson also urged the audience to sign a petition being circulated by Utahns for Ethical Government, which seeks to create an independent, nonpartisan Ethics Committee to advise the legislature on matters of conflicts of interest and other ethics violations. Because the state Attorney General has issued an opinion stating that electronic petition signatures will not be counted as legal, Johnson said that the petition should be signed in person or that those who sign online should request a hard copy of it.
Additionally, she pointed them to the Utah Democratic Party’s Fair Boundaries Initiative petition, which seeks to end what the party calls the gerrymandering of Utah’s legislative districts to favor Republicans.
“We’re not going to see the majority regulate themselves in a way that is fair,” she said.
In the brief question and answer period that followed, members of LDS Family Fellowship asked Johnson about topics ranging from the best way to match the lobbying efforts of the ultra-conservative Utah Eagle Forum and her reasons for not seeking a third term in office.