Lambda Lore

Social justice takes time

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Social justice does not begin as a mighty river. It starts as a trickle. Its headwaters start as a drop of rain. One drop, but once it starts rolling, gathering up other droplets, it eventually flows torrent to the sea of equality.

Discrimination is not just a word. Discrimination is the power to instill fear. It stabs at the soul. It’s a message that you are not worthy, not valued, that you are a second rate human being. In effect, you are garbage. When this message is institutionalized and the victim has no recourse for justice, all society is damaged. Whether that discrimination is based on intrinsic qualities such as gender, skin color, sexual orientation, ethnicity or some mutable characteristics such as religion, ideologies or lifestyles, it is anathema to the ideas of the American experiment that all people are equal and are entitled to equal justice under the law.

The modern LGBT freedom movement began not all that long ago. It began when people began to call for justice and equality and revolted against the arbitrary oppression of sexual minorities.

It has been a hard long road from 1973 when the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as “a psychiatric disorder,” and began to advocate for laws to protect gay women and men from discrimination in employment, housing, transportation, and licensing. When the stigma of mental illness could no longer be used to justify oppression of homosexuals, the APA actively encouraged “the repeal of all legislation making criminal offenses of sexual acts performed by consenting adults in private.”

For the next several years many communities did just that, passing anti-discrimination laws to protect sexual minorities. Even presidential candidate Jimmy Carter announced that if he were elected he would issue executive orders banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military, housing, employment and immigration.

When Dade County, Florida, home of Miami, passed an anti-discrimination ordinance in 1977, the push back by conservative Christians came down with a fury. Anita Bryant, Florida citrus industry spokeswoman, formed a national organization called Save Our Children Committee to demonize gay men. Dade County was the first of many communities to quickly repeal their anti-discrimination ordinances under pressure of the Christian Right, later known as the “Silent Majority.”

Utah jumped on the band wagon in full measure. Utah Congressman Gunn McKay answered a question about gay rights saying,“ I do not believe that the gay’s right to be free from discrimination is greater than the right to live and work in a community whose moral standards reject homosexual activity. People should not be compelled against their will to hire, rent to, or have their children taught by homosexuals.” His sentiments echoed conservative religion-based ideologies in Utah which kept anti-discrimination laws from being codified into statutes for over four decades.

Eight years later, in 1985, as the AIDS epidemic began to ravage the gay men’s communities nationally as well in Utah, a former American Civil Liberties of Utah president, Salt Lake Attorney Ross “Rocky” Anderson, spoke to a “sparse gathering of mainly University of Utah students.” He said to them that if the gay community doesn’t take action concerning gay rights “it’s not going to get done.”

The following year, David Nelson, a former University of Utah student heeded Anderson’s words and drafted Salt Lake City’s first nondiscrimination ordinance. Nelson presented his “Human Rights Bill” to the Salt Lake City Council. Included in the ordinance was a statute that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Salt Lake City Attorney Roger Cutler was utterly opposed to the bill, labeling it a “gay rights” initiative and urged the city council to reject it.

Years later, Utah former state legislator Frank Pignanelli called Nelson among the “political pioneers” of Utah. In 2006, Pignanelli wrote, “Twenty years ago, David Nelson was one of the few Utah voices demanding basic rights for gay and lesbian citizens. Aggressive in promoting antidiscrimination measures, he assisted in passage of the first hate-crimes legislation. Although Nelson frequently generated disagreement among supporters (including me), no one can dispute the courage he exhibited in the early years of this movement.”

Undaunted by his first rejection, in 1987 Nelson lobbied Salt Lake City again, going directly to then Mayor Palmer DePaulis. He asked the mayor to use his executive powers to bypass the city council and issue a human rights ordinance that would guarantee anti-discrimination laws for gays and other minorities. Mayor DePaulis refused.

By the late 1980s Utah’s gay and lesbian community had organized, primarily through the Gay and Lesbian Community Council of Utah. Although the council chose not to be a political action committee, activists such as David Nelson and AIDS activist David Sharpton kept the community abreast on what was happening on Capitol Hill.

Additionally, gay rights was the topic at the fourth annual Fordham Debate held at the University of Utah College of Law. “Be it resolved that Congress should adopt legislation to forbid discrimination against homosexuals in the areas of housing and employment.” Panelists for the resolution were Lois Galgay Reckitt, deputy director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund; Matt Coles of the ACLU; Greg Anderson, assistant pastor of Zion Lutheran Church; Craig Nichols, director of the Epidemiology Bureau of Utah State Department of Health; and Gerry Johnson of People Who Care. Speaking against were Attorney Roger J. Manguson, attorney Randall Raider, Robert Sykes and Wayne McCormick, professor of law.

At the 1988 State Democratic Convention, KRCL radio hosts Becky Moss and Ben Williams attended as openly gay delegates, and inquired of surprised candidates what their views were on anti-discrimination laws for gay people and about mandatory AIDS testing. Bob Stringham, who was running for Congressional Representative from the 3rd District, acted amazed that gay people did not have the same rights as other Utah citizens and wanted more information on the issue.

Another delegate was David Nelson and through his efforts “sexual orientation” was added to the anti-discrimination clause in the Democratic Plank. However, at the last minute, the wording was changed by nervous Democrats to simply “discrimination against all people.”

The first politician to speak at a Gay Pride day event was City Councilman Tom Godfrey in 1989. His presence there stirred up controversy and was made a campaign issue by State Republican Chairman Peter Van Alstyne. Godfrey was “perturbed” that Van Alstyne had made an issue out of his welcoming address to the “gay-rights rally.” He retorted to Van Alstye that, “Not addressing the rally would have been discriminatory. At some point then do I not address blacks, do I not address Hispanics, do I not address low-income people? Do I only address those people who fit Peter’s description of people who fit Republican values?”

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