Guest Editorials

Urquhart: The nation should learn from Utah in LGBTQ protections

By Steve Urquhart

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling affirming that LGBTQ Americans are protected from employment discrimination under federal law. It’s a major step that brings our country toward the more perfect union that we’re forever striving for — but as we celebrate, LGBTQ people in 29 states remain vulnerable to discrimination in housing, healthcare, and public places.

There’s a way to end this patchwork of protections and cover LGBTQ people in every sphere of life; it falls to Congress: Our representatives and senators must step up and pass full, comprehensive federal protections for the LGBTQ community.

I urge members of Congress, including Sen. Romney and Sen. Lee here in Utah, to look no further than our home state for proof that nondiscrimination protections make our communities safer and stronger. In 2015, Utah passed historic nondiscrimination protections. This month marks five years of the law taking effect. Protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination was right for Utah — and it’s right for all Americans.

I hope that my experience can inspire other elected officials to act. As a Republican state senator from a conservative part of the state, I wasn’t the most likely leader to sponsor landmark LGBTQ-related legislation. To be honest, when I was first approached with the idea, I really hadn’t thought much about the issue.

A few years later, I became a supporter and lead sponsor of a Utah Senate bill to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. In 2015, when Utah became the first Republican-controlled state legislature in the nation to pass LGBTQ protections, I knew we were making a difference for the people of our state. It’s the proudest moment in my 16 years as a legislator.

For me, things really began to change when my oldest daughter, then a high school senior, became the head of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, which focused on issues of inequality for LGBTQ youth. I was surprised, but when I asked about her motivations she explained that she wanted to stand up for her gay friends who were being bullied. I was inspired by her kindness.

As I got to know my daughter’s friends, I realized I couldn’t tell who was gay or straight, and that I didn’t care. I just cared that they were good friends for my daughter. Before, I had thought about the LGBTQ community through a limited prism; if I knew someone was gay, I instinctively defined them through that one identity. My daughter’s friends helped change that. They helped me see beyond the labels.

I became a sponsor of Utah’s LGBTQ nondiscrimination bill in 2013. I’ve never been afraid of taking on tough issues and knew there could be a backlash. But I also knew my constituents were good people who, with sincere dialogue, could come to see the issue the way I had — or at least respect my need to take a stand. And I was right.

Over the years I was inspired by everyday LGBTQ people and advocates who shared their stories so their representatives could better understand them. I was introduced to people from the transgender community. As I heard their stories of discrimination, I couldn’t help but feel compassion.

The Utah bill to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination was passed in March of 2015, voted in with overwhelming bipartisan margins. Passing the law showed that we value Utah’s LGBTQ community. I am sure it has saved lives and made the state a better place.

This fight has been the journey of a lifetime. Now, there’s one last step to grant LGBTQ Utahns the full dignity and respect they deserve: full and clear protections at the federal level. It’s time for Congress to finish the job.

Steve Urquharta lawyer in Salt Lake City and a board member for Equality Utah, served in the Utah Legislature from 2001 to 2016, representing the St. George area. This article first appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune.

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