One of Utah’s former openly gay politicians will be leaving the state this summer to take up another political job.
Earlier this month, outgoing Rep. Christine Johnson, who resigned at the end of this year’s Legislative Session, announced that she has accepted the offer to serve as Equality South Carolina’s Executive Director. Like Equality Utah, the group is a statewide gay and transgender rights group that is part of the Equality Federation, a network of groups in U.S. states and territories which include several smaller community groups as well as statewide organizations.
After resigning due largely to the financial hardship caused by being a volunteer legislator, Johnson said that she applied for several jobs outside of Utah in hopes of returning to her original home on the East Coast. In keeping with her recent public service, the jobs on her list all had something to do with gay and transgender rights advocacy.
“I sent out some resumes and received favorable responses and interviews from miscellaneous states, many that were within the Equality Federation,” said Johnson. “It was really amazing that there were [Executive Director positions] that opened up in four states all of a sudden.”
Johnson said that she received offers within a few days of applying and had to pick between jobs in states including Massachusetts and Texas. She was hopeful for the South Carolina job, however, because it is her home state.
“I’ve spent 25 percent of my life living in South Carolina and it felt comfortable and familiar in a way,” she said. “I flew out and met with the Board of Directors, and they seemed to be pretty consistent that I join them and I’m delighted to do so.”
Equality South Carolina, said Johnson, has the same nonprofit status as Equality Utah and is pursuing many of the same issues that its Utah equivalent has embraced — including municipal ordinances that prohibit housing and employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
“Within cities like Columbia and Charleston they’ve been able to secure these,” she said. “It seems like a national trend to start working with local governments to show state governments that communities are only strengthened by enacting such ordinances.”
For three years, Johnson sponsored a bill that sought to extend housing and employment protections for gay and transgender people statewide. Her bill did not make it to the floor for debate in 2008 and 2009. This year, her bill was put aside as part of a controversial “moratorium” on gay-related bills. This agreement between pro-gay politicians and Republican leadership was made to give municipal housing and employment ordinances, like those passed in Salt Lake City and County, time to take effect and a year for their impact on local governments to be observed.
Since then, Park City has passed similar ordinances. A number of cities including West Valley City, Taylorsville and Moab are also in the process of drafting or considering such protections.
Overall, Johnson said that she looks forward to the “flexibility in crafting programs, outreach and advocacy” that her now job will provide. As Equality South Carolina’s leader, she said that she would also “continue to foster the terrific relationship with LGBT leaders within Utah” that she had worked to achieve during her term in office.
“Equality South Carolina like Equality Utah has already faced and lost an amendment campaign [amending the state constitution to ban gay marriage], so now that that has put this glass ceiling on where LGBT rights are concerned,” she said. “But we have some great allies within the Legislature, and I look forward to sitting down with them and assessing where we can go so we start out of offensive rather than defensive.”
That is a lesson, she added, that Equality Utah had taught her.
“Equality Utah has been a tremendous example of what happens when you have proactive legislation as opposed to legislation where we just react,” she explained.
Additionally, Johnson said that her experience in reaching out to the LDS Church and Utah’s religious majority will aid her in her new job.
“Instead of the LDS faith I’ll be dealing with other Christian-based religions like the Baptists,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to having dialogues with those community leaders and having really basic heart to heart conversations about human dignity and respect.”
Johnson expressed her appreciation for Utah’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community for giving her the opportunity to lead and to grow as a leader.
“I’m sure I’ll be back for visits,” she said.
“Someone said, ‘You’re going from the frying pan into the fire,’ but I think I’m going from the fire into the frying pan because they have more fried food in South Carolina,” she joked.