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Person of the Decade: Mark Lawrence

Each year, QSaltLake Magazine declares who we think is the person or the people who have made the greatest difference, for better or worse, to Utah’s LGBTQ community. In 2009 we introduced the People of the Decade, which we awarded to Salt Lake City Councilwomen Deeda Seed and Jill Remington Love and Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson for their longstanding work for our community and their successes in passing positive legislation to benefit us.

As we looked back on the 20-teens, many, many people did incredible work to progress the quality of the lives in our community. Many people also worked against us. As our team discussed and argued and brainstormed and reasoned, one name rang out as our Person of the Decade.

Mark Lawrence had a dream. His dream brought us the right to marry the partner of our choice, and ultimately brought us a shift in public perception of our community. His dream was hard-fought, it was done outside the “powers that be,” and it amazed the world.

I wanted to bring gay marriage to Utah

“I came back from the dead. I felt like I owed humanity something,” Lawrence starts out the film documentary, Church & State. “I wanted to bring gay marriage to Utah.”

No one, including those who ultimately became the plaintiffs in the case, thought it was possible. And no one thought he was the man to get it started.

“People said, the Mormon Church will never allow gay marriage in Utah. So, I said, well, let’s not go to the Mormon Church with this. We have the federal laws and we have the Constitution,” he said to the filmmakers.

Everyone was afraid to stand up to the “big giant.”

Apathy in San Francisco at the height of AIDS, Cancer

Lawrence grew up in a farm community in Cache County, Utah.

He moved to San Francisco in the 1980s when AIDS was at its peak. Even after being diagnosed as being HIV-positive, he watched on the sidelines as his friends died, as ACT-UP demonstrated. He wondered to himself why he wasn’t one of those fighting and marching. He said it took a lot of guts to do such things. He wondered if he was just afraid.

He also knew it would give his life more meaning if he’d gotten involved rather than “reading about it in the paper.”

In 2010 he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He took a few years to go through chemotherapy and fight it.

“I came out of that different,” he said. “I’ve got this second chance. Let’s do something.”

Grassroots beginnings

He created a discussion group on Facebook, saying he was putting together a lawsuit to overturn Utah’s ban on gay marriage. They met in coffee shops to discuss the idea.

A small group of people started to congregate around the concept. None had PR or fundraising or legal experience. They just had the will.

Lawrence began contacting community leaders, trying to get them on board. He was turned down by each and every one of them.

“It really began to piss me off,” Lawrence said. “I went to the ACLU and they said, ‘You can’t possibly be serious.’”

He sent out emails to a slough of legal teams. Magleby & Greenwood responded.

“I was impressed that he was just an individual wanting to do this,” Peggy Tomsic said. “You know what? I thought, ‘that takes a lot of chutzpah.’”

The firm knew it would cost at least a million dollars to launch the fight.

“Here he was, he had no connections, but he was saying he could get the gay community of Utah and across the country to pay for it,” Tomsic said in the film. “Did I think he could do it? No. Did that bother me? No. Because it was the right thing to do.”

Lawrence worked on getting plaintiffs, and three couples signed on once he had the legal team in place. Derek Kitchen and Moudi Sbeity; Laurie Wood and Kody Partridge; and Karen Archer and Kate Call were the named plaintiffs in the case.

The case is heard

The case was heard by Third District Court Judge Robert Shelby, who in the hearing asked Tomsic if he would be the first to rule in favor of overturning a state’s laws that banned same-sex marriage. Tomsic answered, “Yes. Congratulations,” to the glee of those in the chambers.

Shelby promised an answer by mid-January.

On Dec. 20, 2013, the Friday before Christmas, Shelby released his ruling, striking any and all laws within the state, including the Constitutional Amendment 3 that passed in 2004.

Everyone was in shock.

“To file a case in March and have it decided in December of the same year,” Tomsic said, “It’s never happened in my 31 years of practice.”

Couples started marrying almost immediately. Tomsic herself drove to her partner’s work to pick her up to go get married. Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker drove to the County Clerk’s office to help marry people. Rev. Curtis Price of First Baptist Church, attorney Chris Wharton, and many others also drove down to get just as many people as possible legally married before the state could file a motion to stay the ruling.

In fact, it would have been standard practice for the state to have asked for a ruling to be stayed. No such request was made, which meant that Shelby couldn’t rule on a motion to stay until the state presented him with one.

Dominos start to fall across the country

Three weeks later, on January 14, 2014, federal judge Terence Kern ruled that Oklahoma’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. Kern had been sitting on the case since November of 2004.

Then the state of Nevada announced they would not fight a suit attempting to declare their anti-same-sex marriage laws unconstitutional. Then federal judges in Virginia, Illinois, Kentucky, Texas, Tennessee, and Michigan ruled against marriage bans. All of these within three months of Shelby’s ruling.

Lawrence’s crazy idea became the first of a string of dominos to fall.

National organizations see the light

And then the state and national organizations came on board. In fact, they wanted to take over. The same organizations who said no, that Lawrence and his team were crazy and the stakes were too high and it wasn’t yet time, were now sitting before the media claiming victory.

“A lot of these large national organizations, what I call the professional homosexuals — people who make six-digit incomes on exploiting being gay all had these roadmaps all lined up. They were going to win marriage equality because they had to justify their six-digit incomes to their donors.”

Tomsic and the team at Magleby were told by every expert on marriage and the U.S. Supreme Court that they were unwilling to help their case because they were not affiliated with a national LGBT organization.

Tomsic turned to the National Center for Lesbian Rights to help them with the case.

Lawrence is crowded out

Lawrence found out by going to the NCLR website and seeing Kitchen and Sbeity’s photo on the front page.

Lawrence felt like he’d gone from the highest point of his life to the lowest as he was crowded out by the very people who refused to help in the beginning. And then he was crowded out by the plaintiffs and the legal team.

The tenacity, drive, and brazenness that successfully drove him to start the fight for same-sex marriage in Utah were now seen as a liability to the cause as it moved forward through the Court of Appeals and, ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court.

The outcome

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals upheld Shelby’s ruling and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a separate case, making same-sex marriage the law of the land.

With same-sex marriage also came a swift shift in public opinion towards those of us who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. It was a shift unexpected in its speed by social scientists.

Today

Lawrence says that being the founder of Restore Our Humanity changed his life in unexpected ways.

“I’ve always been pretty private in my own life and didn’t expect my personal life to become so public,” he said. “There are a few moments that I regret. I wasn’t prepared for some of the challenges and results that occurred.”

The best part of the experience, he said, was how he personally discovered his place in the LGBT community, something he didn’t have before the case.

“I know now what an amazing and beautiful community we are and that gives me strength and makes proud to be who I am,” he said.

Today, Restore Our Humanity is working with survivors of sexual abuse perpetrated within the LDS Church.

“This has been very difficult,” he said. “I know things that have and continue to exist that are horrifying. I have heard stories and I know things that make me question humanity.

“My ultimate goal is to finally expose [those within the LDS Church] for what they do. I’ve met some pretty incredible people in that community and I feel a responsibility to do what I can because it’s the right and the human thing to do. I would like to work with the younger people in our community and help them to understand that we are still in danger.”

Restore was also involved in standing up against the anti-LGBTQ World Congress of Families when they met in Salt Lake City in 2015.

“In this, I started to become aware of how much anti-LGBTQ hate still exists in our world,” he said. “and it’s deeply troubling.”

For now, he is working at a job that he loves and looking forward to restoring an old house he recently bought.

“I will continue working with survivors of both sexual abuse and assault in the Mormon Church,” he said.

He said that it is now up to a younger generation with fresh ideas to continue the fight for equality.

“The battle has not been won and there is still much work to do. It’s up to the younger folks to continue the fight. It’s also important for them to know our history,” he said. “Our biggest enemy right now is apathy. With the current political climate in the U.S. and the world, we can lose everything if we don’t continue the fight.”

Person of the Decade

As we look back on who made the largest effect on Utah’s LGBTQ community in the past decade, it was a man with the vision, the enthusiasm, the determination, and the unwillingness to sit on the sidelines any longer.

For that, we declare Mark Lawrence our Person of the Decade.

Oh, and one more thing. Lawrence is still single.

Michael Aaron

Michael Aaron is the editor and publisher of QSaltLake. He has been active in Utah's gay and lesbian community since the early 80s and published two publications then and in the 90s.

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