Greetings stranger with a hug and radiant smile, former Rep. Jackie Biskupski sipped a Mountain Dew on the rocks in a local coffee shop while her phone nearly vibrated off the table from texts, emails and calls. Supporters from her own Democratic Party and across the aisle are offering support to the first, and last, openly gay lawmaker in the Utah Legislature, who recently stepped down.
“I’m getting calls and texts from everyone, but overwhelmingly from my Republican colleagues,” Biskupski said as she split her ham and cheese croissant, sprinkled a large helping of pepper, took a bite and offered to share half.
But it hasn’t always been so simple to find support from the Republican side of the political spectrum, and in her first race for state office in 1998, Biskupski faced harsh and personal criticism.
“It was like something out of the KKK,” she recalled.
Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka and her supporters started a front group to send out fliers to Biskupski’s supporters and financial backers, she said.
“I was at my dad’s house when he got his. It was from some group called ‘Supporting Utah Families,’ or something crazy like that,” Biskupski said. “The letter said that if he continued to support a gay candidate they would find his employer and tell them he was supporting a homosexual. I was horrified.”
The tactic backfired and then she used the opportunity to talk about her support of all families, not just the so-called traditional, nuclear family.
“It didn’t end there though,” Biskupski said. “A Mormon bishop made postcards and passed them out telling people to vote for the moral candidate. Then in a Stake, the Sunday before election day, across the pulpits people were told to vote for the so-called moral candidate. Everyone knew what was meant by that and it was to not vote for me.”
Even through such scare tactics, Biskupski went on to sweep the election with nearly two-thirds of the vote, beating Bryan Irving, who later pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted forgery in a money-laundering case.
“There was some talk about not seating me because I was gay and therefore I had to be doing something illegal,” Biskupski said.
When the session started she was seated, but there were members of the House that wouldn’t shake hands or look her in the eye, Biskupski said.
“We won the election and we won big,” Biskupski said. “It changed everything. The very idea that an openly gay person could walk in and take the seat changed everything in grassroots politics in Utah. And some people didn’t like the change.”
The Minnesota native had been involved in a few campaigns before and even ran for Salt Lake City Council in 1997. She lost by 43 votes.
“I didn’t get involved in politics until the GSA fight was happening in the early 1990s,” she said. “I was sitting on my couch watching everything on the news and hearing all the atrocious things adults were saying about gay people. What they were saying about me. I knew I had to get involved. I got off the couch and I haven’t ever been back.”
Along with social justice issues, Biskupski has been involved with campaign finance legislation and worked successfully to form coalitions with members of the Republican Party, even Ruzicka.
“I learned very quickly that building coalitions was going to be important and I think that’s where I excelled. I worked behind the scenes, especially after I got on the rules committee, to kill bad legislation,” she said.
Working as a Democrat in Utah brings a lot of small victories, and a lot of heartache, Biskupski said. Not being able to overturn a bill that forbids gay couples from adopting in Utah was one of her biggest regrets.
“I tried to help them see what damage they were doing, not just to the gay community, but to the community at large,” she said. “I think that’s the only way to get through to them.”
Following Biskupski’s lead, two other openly gay state representatives, Christine Johnson and Scott McCoy, who both later resigned, were elected to the body.
The climate began to shift and while there’s still work to be done, the environment is not nearly as difficult, Biskupski said. She thinks that the anti-gay adoption bill will be repealed and eventually a statewide non-discrimination act will be passed.
“If a new legislator walks into the office with respect for the office and for the members of the house, he or she will be treated very fairly,” she said. “We have come so far in the past decade.”
After being reelected for seven terms, Biskupski knew she was giving up the House and moving on.
“I wanted to take a break because I was considering a run for Salt Lake City mayor and I knew I would need a chance to recharge,” she said.
Despite her love for politics and being involved, adopting a son and trying to adopt another child changed her plans. After needing to sell her home quickly, she found a kid-friendly home that the single mother could afford, but it wasn’t in her district.
“When I made the decision to move out of my district, the only thought I had was what would be best for my family, nothing else mattered to me,” Biskupski said. “When I walked into the home I just knew it was the one for me and my family. I went forward with it and ended up having to resign.”
County delegates will select the replacement in July and currently there are three candidates registered for the race, Brian Doughty, who is openly gay, Nikki Boyer, a lesbian, and Dimitrios Moumoulidis.
“I think that having an openly gay representative on the hill is important and he or she can offer a perspective that is extremely important and I am happy to hear there are openly gay candidates for my former seat,” Biskupski said. “However, I don’t think that should be the defining characteristic and I don’t just want a gay representative. I want a good gay representative, and I want a candidate for District 30 that has all the important issues in mind.”
Biskupski has tried to define her legacy in politics with cooperation and a level-headed approach to solving complicated problems. Compromise and discussion have always been considered, and through mutual respect, the lawmaker became one of the most well-respected members of the legislature.
“I think if you leave yourself open to the challenges that life brings you and just follow the paths that are open, life will really unfold for you,” Biskupski said. “Whether you’re afraid to come out because of family or work pressure, or if you’re open about your sexuality, there are ways for everyone to be involved.”