The final gubernatorial debate between Gov. Gary Herbert and, Democratic challenger, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, held Oct. 19, was interrupted by a group demanding that Herbert address anti-gay discrimination and bullying.
During the debate, local activists Eric Ethington and Daniel Argueta, members of the new group Justice Vanguard, stood and asked Herbert why he will not support a statewide ordinance prohibiting anti-gay and anti-transgender discrimination in housing and employment. Neither submitted their question beforehand. All questions asked by the audience during the debate were pre-screened, a fact which Ethington said he did not like.
The town-hall style debate was held at Libby Gardner Hall on the University of Utah campus and moderated by KSL-TV news anchor Bruce Lindsay.
“Bruce Lindsay was nodding a little until he realized [Argueta] wasn’t one of the authorized questioners,” said Ethington.
Following the question, six other Justice Vanguard members stood and called out the names of gay youths who have committed suicide while holding up signs displaying those names. In July, four young gay men in Utah killed themselves. Last month, the suicides of at least nine young men who had experienced anti-gay bullying made headlines across the nation, triggering a national discussion on bullying in schools.
“Herbert[‘s reaction] was hilarious,” said Ethington, who also runs the blog PRIDE in Utah. “I think he looked at [Argueta] for a minute trying to figure out what was going on, and then he got a look of absolute shock and horror. [Corroon] was a bit of a mixture. I think he was shocked and relieved we were talking to Herbert and not him.”
The audience, Ethington added, was not so stunned.
“The moment the message started going out and people were hearing what we were saying, we got pretty big applause,” he said.
So far, neither Herbert’s nor Corroon’s camp has issued a comment on the protest. Herbert told Deseret News that the interruption was “a little unfortunate for the debate” and that he wanted to wait for more localities to pass nondiscrimination measures before considering a state-wide law.
Within minutes, security at the live, televised debate escorted the eight protesters outside.
“They were on top of us a lot faster than any of us expected,” said Ethington. “I think the moment they saw Daniel and me stand up, and saw us wearing green they stood up and targeted anyone in the audience wearing green.”
In fact, more than half of the protesters were wearing green shirts. The group chose the color, said Ethington, because of its connection to “mother earth,” and therefore all of the people on the planet.
“This this is something that isn’t LGBT specific. It’s about all of us in the world,” he said.
“There is a big problem in this state with targeting different minorities, and this is one way we can all combine our efforts and say, ‘You need to stop what you’re doing to all of us, not just one of us,'” he said.
To that effect, added Ethington, Justice Vanguard will be focusing on issues pertaining to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and to Hispanic people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. The core group — which consists of Ethington, Argueta, Justin Petersen, Will Davis, Tyler Christensen, Maren Lacy and Ginger Phillips, the co-founder of Utah-based homeless youth advocacy group Operation Shine America — has plans to advocate for other oppressed groups.
“I would say that any legislator or community official, whether elected or not, who has targeted a minority in the past and who has damaged people — especially if they go after kids as Herbert has with LGBT youth [by also not supporting a statewide anti-bullying bill that includes sexual orientation and gender identity] — none of them is going to be immune,” he said. “They should all be on forewarning that the community is going to hold them accountable.”
Since the protest, Ethington said he has received a lot of feedback from gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Utahns — most of it in favor of Justice Vanguard’s “direct challenge” method. Ethington said that those who aren’t supportive in the Hispanic community as well as the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community should remember that being confrontational serves a point in activism.
“It’s something that is severely lacking in Utah,” he said. “Utah has a lot of people willing to soft speak and glad-hand, and that’s very important. We absolutely need that because those are the people who make the change happen. But you have to have strong social pressure in any civil rights movement because that’s what keeps the direct pressure on officials to sit down and talk with those that will speak with them. Martin Luther King couldn’t have done what he did without Malcolm X, and I don’t believe that groups in Utah can achieve as much as they can without groups like us.”
“There have been very few people who have said publicly that [they] don’t like this, and for those people we remind them that they don’t have to like it. Disavow it if you like, but use the pressure we’re creating to go do something for us,” he added.
Ethington said that Justice Vanguard’s membership currently consists of “several hundred people.” However, he noted that not all of them would participate in future actions.
“The size of each direct action may be eight, or we may have several hundred show up,” he said.
Justice Vanguard has a Facebook page. To find it, search for The Justice Vanguard.