Lambda Lore

Behind closed doors

So, here it is time for the Utah Legislature to once again inflict their moralistic views on the residents of Utah, whether we like it or not. Hopefully they will not do any ill toward the gay community, however, it’s unlikely they will do us any good.  No matter how awful this year’s 45-day session may be, it will never compare to the mother of all gay bashing that occurred on Capitol Hill in the 1990s.

In 1996 Mormon legislators, much to their chagrin, found that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling had declared that Senator Orrin Hatch’s Equal Access Act of 1984, to protect religious liberties of school children, also applies to gay kids.  Holy crap! And holy or not, it hit the fan when Kelli Peterson and other hearty souls dared form the first gay student club at East High School in 1995.

Much of the focus on the 1996 state legislators was to stop the tide of moral decay that was sweeping across the land. It’s being orchestrated by the adult homosexual organizations,” said Sen. Craig Taylor, R-Kaysville. “Since they can’t reproduce, they have basically said, `We will seduce and sodomize your children.’”

If there was ever a Mormon terrorist, it was Craig Taylor. His prime aim was to terrorize the gay communities of Utah. Taylor believed there was a “moral crisis” in Utah’s society, characterized by “homosexuality, pornography” and a general lack of people behaving themselves. He proudly acknowledged that his belief in the Mormon Church shaped his opinions and legislation and motivated his struggle with “evil versus right for the betterment of the human soul.”

Taylor’s crusade “to root out” included homosexuality. “I have strong feelings about ultimately the gay and lesbian agenda,” said Taylor. “They are promoters and have come right out and said we will seduce and sodomize your children.” In Taylor’s delusional view, “homosexuality is a sickness and an abomination.” His opposition to gay student clubs was based on the assumption that  “If somebody is an alcoholic, you don’t get a group of alcoholics together and take them out to the bar.”

Carol Gnade, executive director of the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said of the ultraconservative moralist, “He’s kind of carrying the flag for right-wing extremists in Utah and that’s about all you can say about Craig Taylor. Every single one of his bills is heavy on moral conduct and light on meaningful legislation.”

Taylor must have been absolutely gleeful when, on Jan. 30, 1996, many of his fellow senators held a secret illegal meeting to discuss the Lavender Menace. Senate Majority Leader, Craig Peterson, R-Orem, had deceptively announced on the Senate floor that there would be a special meeting to discuss the topic of the state’s Uniform School Fund, a fund devoted to public education. Boring!  However that all changed “once doors swung shut.”

Discussed instead was the insidious gay students club that had been organized at East High. Sen. Charles Stewart, R-Provo, was so incensed that he threatened to close down all the school’s clubs rather than let the queer activities continue. To alert his esteemed colleagues to the Lavender Menace, he showed them an anti-homosexual video preaching against giving “special rights” to gay residents. Stewart claimed, “It is common knowledge that there is an element in our society who would form a homosexual sensitivities or lifestyles club at East High School, under the guise of helping homosexual students. My concern is that it is not helping them, as much as it is promoting a homosexual lifestyle.”

In this closed meeting, accusations that Utah’s schools were “undermining family values and promoting homosexual acts” were thrown at the state’s top public and higher-education officials.  Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, even claimed “teachers were instructing students on how to have anal intercourse.”  He was misinformed.

After the illegitimate meeting ended, the 20 or so participants were sworn to secrecy. However, information was leaked by some big-mouth Democrats and milquetoast Republicans. “It was the worst experience I’ve ever had in my time with the Legislature,” said a trembling Capitol Hill old hand who requested anonymity, “fearing retaliation from senate leaders.”

The 90-minute meeting was almost immediately criticized as violating the Utah Open Meetings Act by those in the know. “No minutes were recorded, nor was a vote taken in public on whether the meeting should be closed, though both are required by state law.”

Senators, while embarrassed by the leaked reports about their secret illegal meeting where school officials were questioned about promoting homosexual activities in classroom,  they protested they did nothing wrong.

Sen. Peterson defended the public’s exclusion from the meeting. He claimed the meeting dealt with “potentially pending litigation.” This was a lame excuse. Even if such litigation was imminent, “by law, the meeting closure required a vote conducted in public and support from two-thirds of those in attendance.” This same law required detailed minutes or a tape recording. None of these actions occurred. So Peterson said, “We just made a mistake. You have to remember, we’re lay legislators.”

Taylor, sensing the bloodletting mood of his fellow senators, crafted a bill to deny teachers their constitutional rights of freedom of speech. His SB246 was aimed at “preventing teachers and public-school employees from promoting illegal activities, either in their professional capacity or, in some circumstances, their private lives.”  This was a veiled attack on teachers who dared sponsored Gay/Straight Alliances at their schools.  His fellow senators, after a “75-minute exchange that ranged from evocations of the U.S. Constitution and tales of teen suicide to quotations from the Nuremberg trials,”  passed the bill to the House. In the final hours of the 1996 Legislative Session the controversial bill that prohibited teachers from condoning or supporting illegal behavior, even in their private lives, passed.

The Democrats fared almost as poorly in the session. Oh yes in public, they defended the civil rights of queers and other minorities, but in private they were trying to distance themselves from the gays. Political hacks had for several years been telling the Democrats they had to reverse their declining electability in Utah by appealing to the Mormon bloc. Democratic boss Mike Zuhl thus summoned David Nelson and other officials of the Gay and Lesbian Utah Democrats to a closed-door meeting and “demanded the group remove the party tag from its name.”  Nelson protested, saying it was like being taken to the shed for a whipping.  However. we queers have the last laugh with Zuhl’s position being held by an openly gay man, James Dabakis.

Retired University of Utah political scientist J.D. Williams, a lifelong Democrat, described the 1996 Legislative Session as one long “morality play.”

“All of a sudden, they have put themselves in the kind of business — regulating private conduct — that you would think conservatives would be the last ones to interfere with.”

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