The decade of the “Gay Nineties” saw the issues of anti-discrimination protection go from being a trickle to a fast moving stream. In the year 1990, David Nelson founded the Gay and Lesbian Utah Democrats caucus and began to push the Utah Democratic Party to add “sexual orientation” to its nondiscrimination policy. At the 1990 State Democratic Convention, Nelson’s motion that Utah Democrats embraced the anti-discrimination plank already in the national platform finally passed.
At the same time at the University of Utah, members of the Alliance of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Rights Advocates began circulating petitions requesting that a clause be added to the U’s student bill of rights to prohibit “sexual and affectional discrimination.” ALGEBRA was spearheaded by Connell O’Donovan, Debra Burrington, Kevin Warren and Angela Nutt, co-presidents of Lesbian and Gay Student Union. By doing so, these petitioners received anonymous death threats. However, by the end of the school year of 1990-1991 the U Academic Senate approved the changes to ensure that students are not harassed because of their sexual orientation.
The summer of 1991, the University of Utah President Chase N. Peterson presented a proposal to the school’s board of trustees to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation against students, staff and faculty. The board of trustees voted in favor of President Peterson’s proposal which made the University of Utah the first state institution to provide discrimination protection to gay people.
Later in the 1992 Utah Legislative Session, House Minority Leader Frank Pignanelli sponsored the state’s first hate-crimes bill alongside Michael Aaron, who had started a local Anti-Violence Project. An earlier Dan Jones poll had found that Utahns were split whether gays should be included in a hate-crimes law. Opposition came from both Republicans and Democrats with the catch phrase, “Special Rights” bandied about. Former state legislator Merrill Nelson summed up the general consensus when he said “homosexuals should not be given special status under the new bill, considering that sodomy is against the law in Utah.” Pignanelli’s bill failed.
The following year Dr. Patty Reagan, a University of Utah health education professor, and founder of the Salt Lake AIDS Foundation revealed a survey she had given to over 1,000 students. Her findings were that only 2 percent of U students said they were gay. National studies suggested that 10 percent of any population is gay so she wondered why only 2 percent of the state’s gay population openly acknowledged their sexuality. Her conclusion was that these men and women were afraid to admit they were homosexual because they could “lose their jobs, friends and family.”
Salt Lake Police Officer David Ward, the city’s liaison to the Gay and Lesbian Community Council of Utah, validated Dr. Reagan’s conclusions by adding that openly gay people even could “be kicked out of their homes when the landlord finds out.”
A Research and Survey poll published in 1992 by the Salt Lake Tribune showed that 65 percent of Utahns agreed that gay people “should be protected by laws against housing and job discrimination” as compared to the Dan Jones Poll of 1991 which claimed only 42 percent of Utahns thought gays should be protected. David Nelson, using these statistics, drafted and lobbied, this time successfully, a nondiscrimination ordinance to the Salt Lake County Board of Commissioners.
In 1992, SL County government consisted of only three commissioners. At the time they were two Democrats, Randy Horiuchi and Jim Bradley, and one Republican, Mike Stewart. Horiuchi and Bradley voted to adopt Nelson’s anti-discrimination ordinance which included sexual orientation. Commissioner Horiuchi agreed to sponsor the ordinance because he had experienced discrimination firsthand as a member of a racial minority. The Salt Lake County Board of Commissioners’ approval of the ordinance was the first governmental ban on gay discrimination.
Dale Sorenson, executive director of GLUD was jubilant over the win on the county level and boasted, “We plan to take this [ordinance] to the Legislature and every other county and city.” Eagle Forum director Gayle Ruzicka said her organization was caught off guard by the county’s “hasty action” of passing a protection law for gays and she promised her “organization would be ready next time.” And they were.
At the 1992 Republican State Convention, homosexuals were denounced as a “health threat.” Don Ruzicka, Gayle Ruzicka’s husband helped write the state Republican platform which claimed, “The greatest discrimination that currently exists is treating AIDS as a civil rights issue rather than as a public health issue.”
At The Utah Democratic Convention, delegates also debated gay issues, including hate crimes, discrimination and gay teen suicide. Conservative Democrats tried to remove “sexual orientation” from the discrimination clause in the platform. Dale Sorenson would have none of that and lobbied fiercely to keep the original language. In the end “sexual orientation” remained and the Utah Democrat platform continued to contained planks forbidding discrimination in the conduct of party affairs. More importantly GLUD managed to defeat incumbent Democrat Ted Lewis, who voted against the Anti-hate Bill and replaced him with Pete Suazo, who eventually was elected to the Senate to fill Lewis’ former seat.
On a roll, the Gay and Lesbian Utah Democrats also in 1992 asked the newly elected Salt Lake City Mayor Deedee Corradini if she would sign an executive order prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation for the city and then work to include sexual orientation as a specific protected category in city’s ordinance. Mayor Corradini turned down the request without explanation.
Anti-gay sentiment was building up steam among Utah Conservatives on Capitol Hill who hoped to stem any further progress by gay activists. Worried that Hawaii might legalize gay marriage, Utah Republicans drafted a ban on homosexual marriage. They also refused recognition of any such marriages outside of Utah. Gay activists decried the bill as discriminatory, but the Utah Senate passed the bill on March 1, 1995. Another Dan Jones poll found that 68 percent of Utahns definitely believed gay marriage should be banned.
As the Salt Lake mayoral campaign began in 1995, the issue of gay rights continued to be dodged by the mayor. Corridini refused to make a commitment to an anti-discrimination ordinance to protect gay employees. Her challenger Rich McKeown, however, said he would sign a memo protecting gay employees from discrimination as soon as elected. So GLUD endorsed McKeown’s candidacy. This outraged Salt Lake City Council members Keith Christensen, Stuart Reid and Sam Souvall. Chairman Stuart Reid claimed the present policy was “fair and adequate.” Christensen called McKeown “irresponsible.” Mayoral hopeful McKeown later back-pedaled on extending the same protections granted to heterosexuals to gay employees and GLUD pulled their endorsement. McKeown lost to Corradini by 400 votes.
At the county level, Republican Commissioner Brent Overson tried to alter sections of the county’s anti-discrimination code. However, Commissioner Horiuchi persuaded his two colleagues to back off from any changes. He added, “People who work for the county should never discriminate.”
The year 1996 saw a blow back against the gay community even from the Democratic Party. Gay Democrats were getting blamed for their support of anti-discrimination laws and were seen as pushing a “Gay Agenda.” As Utah Democrats began losing legislative seats, State Democratic Party Chair Mike Zuhl suggested that since equal rights of gay people wasn’t supported by most Utahns, state Democrats should be silent about the issue or risk losing more elections. West Valley Democrat Kelly Atkinson called “Gay Rights” a “fringe” issue “that can’t be used to define the party.” In 1996, the political tide had turned against GLUD.
Earlier in fall 1995, Kelli Peterson and other East High students started a Gay Straight Alliance Club [GSA] with support from teacher Camille Lee. Federal law prohibited public schools from discriminating against nonacademic clubs based on unpopular ideas, like homosexuality. The Salt Lake School Board could not prevent the students from forming a club, so instead in February 1996 they banished all clubs not linked to the curriculum. The Utah State Legislature then met in secret closed-door sessions to find legal ways to protect Utah school boards from lawsuits if they discriminated against gay student clubs. Most of the 1996 session was virulent and vile as state lawmakers bashed gay people as criminals and pedophiles. The worse was former Utah state senator, Craig Taylor. Brazen about his homophobia, he said “I have strong feelings about ultimately the Gay and Lesbian agenda… They are promoters and have come right out and said we will seduce and sodomize your children.”