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Equality Utah celebrates past, future

It’s been a decade and Equality Utah is growing every year. The political-action committee is one of the premier political organizations in Utah, and the annual Allies Dinner is one of the biggest parties and fundraising events of the year for any queer in Utah. This year’s dinner is Aug. 20, 6 p.m., at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, with former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom as the keynote speaker. The dinner will also honor the original founders of Equality Utah. To purchase tickets, go to EqualityUtah.org.

In honor of the event, QSaltLake explored the history of Equality Utah and spoke with the three original founders and past executive directors.

Jim Dabakis: Co-Founder

The recently elected chair of the state Democratic Party said he is immensely proud of Equality Utah and asserts that his role in getting the organization off the ground was minimal.

“There was no real political force in the LGBT community,” Dabakis said. “We wanted an organization that could get involved in politics and be an organized voice in helping people get elected, not just to throw around money.”

Dabakis said after he was appointed to a position on a board by then-Mayor Rocky Anderson, there was a Salt Lake City Council member that took objection to having an openly gay man on the board. Although he wasn’t originally offended, it did light the spark that became the motivator for Equality Utah.

“I wanted to give us a place at the table along with all the other political groups, and I think Equality Utah has done that,” he said. “I remember when I took Dustin Lance Black, last year’s keynote speaker, over to the Salt Palace to show him the space, and I was overwhelmed with how big of a space we were going to fill. It was phenomenal.”

Dabakis said he sees Equality Utah as playing a key role in Utah politics for many years into the future, but is excited for the day that it’s no longer needed.

“I think the day is coming when it will be an anachronism like the Elks Club or the Masons. I can’t wait for that day,” Dabakis said.

Michelle Turpin: Co-Founder

The mayoral election of 1999 when Rocky Anderson won was a landmark election, Turpin said. When Anderson was elected, he said he never would have been able to do it without the help of the queer community.

“It was amazing, for the first time ever, the homos had taken over the city. We wielded real political power,” she said.

While having lunch with Dabakis and Doug Wortham at the Orbit Café in Salt Lake City, the decision was made to start a group that could do what the Pride Center couldn’t and use that political force.

“I think I really saw how much Equality Utah had grown from that discussion in a café when I was making calls during the Prop. 8 battle in 2008. I was sitting next to a straight Mormon couple who were calling people in California and pleading that they not support it,” Turpin said.

Equality Utah was founded with an exit strategy and Turpin said the entire purpose of the organization is to put itself out of business.

“I think it’s coming. I know it sounds strange to found a group on the premise that it needs to eventually fill its need, but that’s the case with Equality Utah,” Turpin said.

Doug Wortham: Co-Founder

The idea for Equality Utah was not original and there were many queer-rights pioneers that came long before it was founded, Wortham said. The idea wasn’t a sudden epiphany and they followed a very tried and true practice of raising money, hiring a staff and expanding their reach.

“The difference really happened when we hired an executive director and expanded the staff,” Wortham said. “The other previous volunteer organizations struggled because it was such a time commitment and we needed a paid staff.”

Equality Utah is exactly where he thought it would be in the 10 years since it was founded, Wortham said. An active political voice for queer Utahns was needed, and it was met.

“I think Equality Utah will eventually play a role similar to the ACLU and ensure that protections are being met, but it will not have the same active role it has now,” Wortham said.

Michael Mitchell: Executive Director 2001-2005

When Mitchell started working, he was faced with some of the most basic tasks, such as where to get hot water for the office. But as he worked out the kinks and started on the first race and goal in the Salt Lake City Council. Jill Remington Love was elected and Equality Utah saw its first successful foray into Utah politics.

“In an interview during the whole Amendment 3 fight, I responded to a statement by LaVar Christensen by saying simply, ‘Equality means everyone.’ And that became kind of a rallying point for us,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell helped organize the first Allies Dinner and said it was one of his most proud moments as director.

“We didn’t know if anyone would even come,” Mitchell said. “But when the room filled up, it was more than just a relief; I could see the groundwork being laid for something much bigger.”

Mike Thompson: Executive Director 2005-2009

After Mitchell left, Thompson took the role of executive director and led the PAC through some tumultuous times, including the Prop. 8 debacle and aftermath. But the difficulties helped him and the PAC succeed.

“I was driving up State Street to the Capitol before our first legislative rally in 2006. In that legislative session there were six anti-LGBT bills.  As I drove up State Street, I passed a rally attendee walking up the hill carrying his homemade sign that read “A Fair & Just Utah.”  In that moment, I knew what we were doing was catching on,” Thompson said.

Equality Utah ballooned with membership and influence during the years he was involved and even a Deseret News columnist commented on the influence, calling it “the dominate force in Salt Lake City politics.”

The Allies Dinner plays a key role in helping the PAC continue growing and advocating for statewide equality.

“Nothing is more inspiring than being in the largest ballroom in Salt Lake City, surrounded by 1500 plus friends and allies, who share a single vision – a fair and just Utah.  Just being there calls one up to a higher place of service in this movement toward full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people,” Thompson said.

Brandie Balken: Executive Director 2009-present

The QSaltLake person of the year for 2010 helped to usher in a new wave of elevated influence. The PAC set a goal to have 10 municipalities pass non-discrimination ordinances in 2010. At first the goal seemed lofty, but all around the state, discussions were had in city council chambers and over dinner tables about the need to be fair to one another.

Despite the enormous success of these ordinances, she said it’s the personal moments that motivate her and help her keep working through the late nights and long days. One moment in particular stands out while talking to someone who did not immediately appear to be an ally.

“She (Salt Lake City School District Board of Education member Amanda Thorderson) had some very legitimate questions and I could hear her child crying in the background. When she continued to make time for me, even though I assume she is straight, I could see the humanity of our cause and it really hit me. The work we’re doing is so important,” Balken said. “She later went on to be one of our strongest allies.”

Equality Utah will continue to work until full equality is achieved and the Allies Dinner is an important part of the fundraising efforts that allows the PAC to elect fair-minded candidates, Balken said.

“To sum it up, I’d have to say we’ll keep working until there’s full equality. We can’t accept anything less,” she said.

Photo of Seth Bracken

Seth Bracken

Seth Bracken is the editor of QSaltLake

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One Comment

  1. Utah Democratic Chairman Jim Dabakis said that, when he co-founded Unity Utah (later, Equality Utah) in 1999, “[t]here was no real political force in the LGBT community. We wanted an organization that could get involved in politics and be an organized voice in helping people get elected, not just throw around money” [QSaltLake, “Equality Utah celebrates 10 years,” Aug. 18].

    Dabakis failed to consider his party’s Utah Stonewall Democrats caucus which, in 1999, was already celebrating the 10-year anniversary of its founding as Gay and Lesbian Utah Democrats. The caucus will soon enjoy its 23rd year. Lasting almost a quarter-century seems to be its own headline.

    After GLUD members first attended the Salt Lake County Democratic Convention in 1990, KUTV Television news anchors called the combined caucus, fund-raiser and lobby “a new political powerhouse.”

    Armed with the description, GLUD members: 1) replaced conservative Democratic state Reps. Ted D. Lewis and Ronald J. Greensides with gay friends Pete Suazo and Loretta Baca, 2) wrote and lobbied successfully for two Salt Lake County ordinances which prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, 3) elected an openly gay delegate to the Democratic National Convention, 4) helped write and lobbied successfully for two hate-crime bills which require the collection and publication of crimes based on sexual orientation, and 5) helped write and lobbied successfully for a viatical-settlement bill which allows terminally ill Utahns to sell their life-insurance policies to improve their lives.

    There were more than 100 other such “firsts” that GLUD members accomplished in the group’s first few years. Clearly, Dabakis had been unaware or unimpressed by the group and its accomplishments. Equality co-founder Doug Wortham at least noted that “other previous volunteer organizations” paved the way for the group.

    Having known Dabakis for more than 32 years, I am not surprised that he can’t remember GLUD or its work. He attended its caucuses or social events seldomly. For any state-party chairman, absences during such historic events — let alone not knowing about them — should be humiliating.

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