Hosting a dinner celebrating and honoring pioneers in gay rights is a tough sell in Utah. Hosting the dinner, and using it to raise funds for an LGBT awareness campaign in Southern Utah is even more difficult. With no gay bars, pride centers or other overtly visible signs of gay people, it’s easy for people to ignore the issue, said Linda Stay, who along with her husband, Steven Stay, is co-chairing the First Annual Equality Celebration Building Bridges in Southern Utah.
“We’ve become very well known for fighting against causes; fighting against encroachment on marriage equality, fighting against discrimination,” Steven said. “But here’s an opportunity to celebrate. We can make the community more visible.”
Representatives from Equality Utah approached Linda and Steven to help plan and organize the event in November of last year. The funds raised from the event will go to help launch an education and advocacy program in Southern Utah, and all the funds will stay in that area.
The program will include a silent auction, live jazz music, a dinner and a keynote address from Winn Claybaugh, author and co-founder of Paul Mitchell Schools. The event will also be presenting honorary awards to Claudia Bradshaw and Chris McArdle, two pioneers of gay rights in Southern Utah.
“We’re going to use this money and opportunity to help make the gay community more visible in Southern Utah,” Linda said. “There is such a strong and powerful community down here, but no one knows about it. Everyone ignores it. No one wants to have to address the issue.”
Finding donors and sponsors has been extremely difficult because many people and businesses do not want to be associated with the celebration, Linda said.
“We deal with it every day. As soon as people find out what Equality Utah is, no one returns our phone calls or they simply say that their religion won’t allow them to support the dinner,” Linda said. “I think it’s so sad that people can’t do the thinking for themselves and be a part of a celebration for equality. Who opposes equality?”
Most people just want to ignore the fact that there are gay people in Southern Utah, said Benjamin King Smith, former president of the Queer-Straight Alliance at Southern Utah University. There are cases of discrimination every day, especially in the workplace, Smith said.
“I know of a lot of cases of discrimination,” Smith said. “Most cases are covert discrimination and there’s not a lot of people who are willing to stand up and say, ‘I’ve been discriminated against.’ And it’s not because it doesn’t happen.”
However, the attitude is changing and people are getting excited about the upcoming event, he said.
“There’s a lot of hope that wasn’t there a couple of years ago,” Smith said. “Equality Utah is doing good things and achieving things. It makes everyone think things are getting better.”
And despite the many challenges, the planning committee and Equality Utah have been able to find sponsors and attendees to fill the space. There are 250 seats available and they are selling out quickly. The event is gaining attention and is already helping bring honest and open discussions about equality, Linda said.
While people who live in Southern Utah may not have all the access to the resources available in Salt Lake, there are great people and great progress happening, said Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah.
“I see the growth in Southern Utah and it is all coming about because of fantastic people who are doing fantastic things,” Balken said.
However, there is still room to grow, Linda said.
“I still know people who are losing their jobs when they are outed at work. I know people who are afraid to tell their friends and families that they are gay. We have so much work to do, but the celebration is a great place to start.”
For more information and to buy tickets for the event, go to EqualityUtah.org.