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Gay & Lesbian Utah Democrats’ tumultuous ’96

A casualty of an uncompromising homophobic state legislature session in 1996 was the demise of the Gay and Lesbian Utah Democrats, commonly referred simply as GLUD. Once a powerhouse within Utah’s Democrat Party, GLUD folded at the end of 1996 due to a turbulent anti-gay year in Utah’s politics and also in part due to the acerbic personality of its founder David Nelson. 

Nelson had been very effective in promoting anti-discrimination ordinances in Utah, however even when reporters called Nelson “persistent,” they also called him “brash and even insulting.” While many in the gay community found Nelson difficult to work with, they admired his results and dedication to advancing equal rights in Utah. 

After the Mormon Church’s official 1994 opposition to gay marriage, Democratic leadership within the state became concerned about how much GLUD demanded from them in order to receive their endorsement. While publicly defending the civil rights of homosexuals, many Utah Democrats privately distanced themselves from the “gay-rights agenda” promoted by GLUD.

In 1995 Rep. Kelly Atkinson, the state House Minority Whip, wanted to distance the Democrat Party from “fringe groups” of which he included gay people. Political advisers had for several years warned Democratic leaders that in order to reverse their declining electability in Utah, they had to appeal to a larger bloc of LDS voters now securely in Republican hands.

During the heated 1996 legislative session, several leading Democratic leaders and officeholders summoned David Nelson, GLUD chair Michael Aaron, and executive director Dale Sorenson, to a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill. At this February meeting state party chairman, Mike Zuhl told the leaders that he believed protecting the equal rights of “bisexual, gay and lesbian people” wasn’t supported by most Utahns and that state Democrats should be silent about their issues or risk losing elections.

Zuhl, along with House minority leader Rep. Frank Pignanelli and Rep. Kelly Atkinson requested that GLUD remove the word Democrat from its name. They claimed the use of “Democrat” in GLUD’s title was hurting the Democrats’ efforts to appeal to a broader political base within the state. 

Nelson asked Zuhl what could GLUD expect in return if the gay caucus agreed to change its name. Pignanelli argued that it was not the time to push for expanded rights, as there were Republican-led efforts to curb existing gay rights.

“You have a senate that basically wants to eradicate them,” Pignanelli said.

Aaron said the real source of friction between GLUD and Democratic leaders was that the party’s establishment was not willing to stand up for gay issues. He complained that the Democrats had failed to oppose a Republican bill the previous year that strengthened Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage. 

Nelson had earlier trademarked the name Gay and Lesbian Utah Democrats and thus refused the demands to drop Democrat from the gay caucus’ name.

Later GLUD further infuriated party leaders when they endorsed civil-rights attorney Rocky Anderson over State Rep. Kelly Atkinson as the Democratic candidate for the Second Congressional District Race. GLUD’s endorsement of Anderson was because of his strong support of same-sex marriage and other gay and lesbian issues. Atkinson, on the other hand, had supported Senate Bill 246 which aimed to restrict gay and lesbian student groups. Anderson won the primary battle at the state Democratic convention, due in part to the support by the Gay and Lesbian Utah Democrats.

Nelson came under fire from within the gay community after he criticized Anderson in the summer of  1996. He accused Anderson of flip-flopping on the gay marriage issue after Anderson clarified his position on same-sex marriage.

Anderson stated that, while he supported gay unions, he would not himself advocate for it if elected to Congress. Nelson was unhappy with Anderson’s clarification and sent out a press release saying the caucus was “disappointed and angry” at Anderson over the “change” in his same-sex marriage stance. Nelson felt that Anderson had broken a promise made to GLUD for their endorsement of him over Atkinson in the primary.

After the press release was published, a number of GLUD members and supporters severely criticized Nelson saying he didn’t speak for the gay community or the gay caucus. 

Still, Nelson was chosen as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention that was held in Chicago in August. Nelson was the only openly gay member of the Utah delegation. While attending the convention, Nelson sent out more than a dozen news releases during the five-day event.

Members of Utah’s delegation publicly expressed their tolerance of equal rights for gays, yet many of them said privately that they wished that Nelson was not quite so “zealous” with his dispatches. They worried that he made it appear as if the Utah Democratic Party was promoting, and not just tolerating, homosexuality.

These delegates were anxious that this perception would not help the party back in Utah. However, Nelson wasn’t deterred by such concerns. He said of the worries of the straight delegates, “they don’t worry about whether attracting the Mormon vote may offend some other group.”

The 1996 Democratic Convention nominated President Bill Clinton to challenge Bob Dole, the Republican choice in the November Presidential election. Upon returning to Utah, Nelson then joined the steering committee of the Clinton/Gore campaign’s “Lesbian and Gay Leadership Council of Utah.”

In Salt Lake County, the most important political race that year was for the Second Congressional house seat. Democrats chose Rocky Anderson to campaign for the office against Merrill Cook, a Republican conservative favored by the Utah Eagle Forum. Cook was opposed to gay rights in all measures. So much so that even the Utah Log Cabin Republicans endorsed Rocky Anderson over Cook.  

Cook promised that he was not going to campaign on the issue of same-sex marriage, but during the fall he began running TV ads that showed Rocky Anderson voted yes for same-sex marriage, with Cook voting no.  Additionally, Cook took every opportunity in debates with Anderson to mention Anderson’s stands on same-sex marriages, even though Anderson had made it clear that he would poll his constituents and vote on any same-sex marriage bills as his constituents wish.  

In October, fliers printed on hot pink paper showed up in the Salt Lake City business district. They were taped on the Main Street headquarters of Rocky Anderson, on some newspaper boxes, retail storefronts, and street posts. Written on the fliers in large, bold type were the words: “Utah Gay & Lesbians Unite. We Have a Voice. Ross Anderson for Congress. Pro Abortion. Pro ACLU. Pro Gay Clubs in Schools. Pro More Gun Control. Anti Death Penalty.” In smaller type at the bottom, imitating the legally required committee endorsement was written: “Utah Gay and Lesbian for Anderson Committee”. However, there was no such committee. It was simply a dirty political trick by Anderson’s opponents. Cook denied any connection to the fliers.  

In November, President Clinton was re-elected nationally but state Democrats were trounced. Anderson was defeated for the Second Congressional District and Rep. Bill Orton lost his Third Congressional District race. Republicans held every major state office except for the attorney general. Only 20 Democrats were elected in the 75-member House of Representatives and nine Democrats in the 29-member Senate.

After this statewide rejection of Democrats, Nelson announced on November 5 that the Gay and Lesbian Utah Democrats would cease its fund-raising and lobbying work by the end of the year.

The caucus was renamed Utah Democratic Gay and Lesbian Caucus until 2002 when it was renamed Utah Stonewall Democrats.

Photo: David Nelson

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2 Comments

  1. I mustn’t have personally caused much of a ‘demise’ of Gay and Lesbian Utah Democrats since it will happily celebrate its 30th year on January 27, 2020 (following its chosen creation date on the first day of the Utah Legislature General Session of 1990). With just two name updates over 10 years, very few LGBTQ organizations in Utah survive as long and as well. ‘[A]cerbic’ or not, I remain extremely proud of all my organizations’ continuing success.

  2. The 1996 Chicago Democratic National Convention Committee LGBTQ campaign committee strongly encouraged state LGBTQ delegates to share one or two daily news releases with their state media sources to make our then largest-ever LGBTQ delegation known to Democrats back home. Believing that was tantamount to a campaign request, I accepted the request and sent two releases each day of six days about the convention’s daily changing news via facsimile to the several Utah media sources as requested. Even I believed it was overkill, but I wanted to be able to say that Utah Democrats did our best to maintain media awareness of our LGBTQ caucus. My actions were certainly not based on my desires (which would have restricted my releases to just one for the week). So, my advice is this: Don’t trust the Utah media sources’ claim about my huge ego without understanding the expectations placed on me. And, my delegate cohorts expressed their very strong support of my inclusion in all caucus matters … except two who described their concern about Utah LGBTQ matters with the media. Moreover, don’t fill in the gaps with imaginings. Better yet, ask me.

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