Last edited: January 01, 2005

Gay Issues Come to The Forefront in Heavily Mormon State

'It's Been A Long Time Coming'

Washington Blade, December 18, 1998

By Peter Freiberg

For a conservative Gay backwater state, Utah has generated an impressive flow of Gay news lately. A major reason, according to activists, is simply that the state's Gay community is finally coming of age.

More Gay Utahans, activists say, are rebelling against the negative portrayals and anti-Gay political stances taken by many politicians. The result has been a constant stream of controversies, bringing Gay issues to the forefront in a heavily Mormon state that has preferred to keep Gays - and their issues -invisible.

Beginning in 1996, when the Salt Lake City school board and the state legislature drew national attention with efforts to ban Gay-straight student groups in the public schools, the level of activism in the state has steadily increased.

In recent months, for instance:

The club controversy has continued to percolate, as the Salt Lake City school system persists in attempts to ban the East High Gay/Straight Alliance. A federal judge recently rejected a request from four civil rights organizations to allow the club to meet pending a trial on charges that the Board of Education is violating the federal Equal Access Act.

Jackie Biskupski, a Democrat, became Utah's first openly Gay elected official when voters in a Salt Lake City district overwhelmingly chose her for the state legislature. Biskupski was aided by a new state group, the Gay and Lesbian Political Action Committee (GALPAC), which helped raise money for her campaign.

A federal judge, in a strong opinion, ruled in favor of Wendy Weaver, a longtime teacher and coach who argued that a suburban school district unconstitutionally restricted her freedom of speech when it ordered her not to discuss the fact that she is Lesbian with students, staff, or parents of students. The state is still considering whether to appeal.

A new Gay community center was dedicated in October, a two-story building in downtown Salt Lake City that organizers hope will eventually spawn satellite centers in rural Utah. Although there were two Gay community centers previously, this one appears to have a better chance of becoming financially viable and a unifying force in the community.

Also in October, Gov. Mike Leavitt, a conservative Republican, held an unpublicized 75-minute meeting with a dozen Gay high school students. The meeting was arranged by Jim Debakis, a Gay art dealer and former talk show host and a leader of the community center project.

The Salt Lake City Council, unwilling to retain an ordinance that explicitly protected Gay city employees from discrimination, eliminated all mention of specific categories of discrimination in the law and said simply that no discrimination is acceptable. But activists say a change of one vote - which might happen after the next Council elections - could reinstate the explicit protection. (Salt Lake County already prohibits discrimination for its employees and services.) And

Mormon Church leaders donated more than $1 million to anti-Gay initiative campaigns in Alaska and Hawaii to win voter support in November to block legal recognition of same-sex marriages.

Accident is part of the reason all these developments seem to be coming at once: It was coincidence, activists note, that a federal judge rendered a judgment in the Weaver lawsuit at about the same time as he rejected a preliminary injunction in the clubs case. But deeper reasons, they say, are that more Gays are coming out and the community is maturing.

"It's been a long time coming," says Robert Austin, an openly Gay teacher and father who is co-chair of the Utah chapter of the Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a group that works to improve school conditions for Gay students and teachers.

"There's been a lot of groundwork laid by folks over the years," Austin says. "And there are times, especially in a very conservative culture [like Utah], when people feel compelled to draw a line in the sand and say, 'We cannot accept this.'"

Carol Gnade, the openly Lesbian executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, says, "The time is ripe. People have come out who lived in silence for years. It's really quite empowering."

One indication of a different climate in Salt Lake City, says Doug Wortham, an openly Gay private school teacher and leader of the new GALPAC, is the Gay Pride parade. Until 1996, he says, "we had a Gay Pride that was so in the closet there was no parade." Instead, people assembled in suburban Murray, in a park whose tall hedges kept passersby from looking in. The past three years, Wortham says, a parade has been held in downtown Salt Lake City, where marchers gather at the state capitol and then walk past the Mormon office building.

Laurie Wood, an openly Lesbian college teacher in a very conservative county, said "hurtful and ignorant" letters to the editor and politicians' statements over the clubs issue made many Gays feel they had to speak out.

"More and more people were emboldened by state senators likening Gay people to animals," Wood said. "You can take only so many slings and arrows before you say, 'Enough is enough.'"

Wood says local activism has been stoked by the involvement of several organizations in Utah issues - the national and state ACLU, GLSEN and Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national Gay legal group.

"I've had a number of people come up to me and say our litigation in Utah has been a big impetus to organizing activity," says Lambda attorney David Buckel. "It sends the message that there are people who are willing to fight for Gay people, and they're not alone. The ACLU of Utah has also played that role." Nevertheless, progress on Gay issues is being fought every step of the way in the mostly Republican state, where, according to University of Utah political scientist Matthew Burbank, more than 60 percent of the population is Mormon.

The politically influential Mormon church maintains that while homosexual orientation should not be condemned, homosexual sex is immoral. In Utah, the overwhelmingly Mormon, GOP-controlled state legislature was the first to ban recognition of Gay marriage and has refused to include anti-Gay violence in its hate crimes protection laws.

Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and a former Utah resident, cautions that, while the state and its Gay community are changing, "much of the dialogue and visibility around Gay issues is Š based on homophobia and [anti-Gay] discrimination."

"They do things in Utah that wouldn't happen in other states," says Kendell, pointing to the speech restrictions placed on teacher Wendy Weaver as an example.

Burbank doesn't think it likely that either public opinion or the stance of most politicians has changed much on Gay issues. Even Biskupski's election, he notes, came in a mostly Democratic urban district. Her presence will "provide a human face" when Gay issues come up, Burbank says, but "I wouldn't be under any illusions that it's going to change policy in the state legislature."

The legislature in 1996 entered the school clubs controversy by voting to require local school boards to ban certain student groups, including those that discuss "human sexuality." Earlier, the Salt Lake City school board, seeking a legal way to keep the Gay/Straight Alliance from meeting, had banned all non-curricular clubs.

Under the federal Equal Access Act, a federally funded public school that permits any non-curricular club to use its facilities must grant such access to all other non-curricular clubs. In a lawsuit, Lambda, the ACLU, and the NCLR argue that East High has allowed other non-curricular clubs to meet on school grounds and that the Gay/Straight Alliance should be permitted to meet as well. The school board is not relying on the state law banning clubs that discuss "human sexuality," so that law has not yet been challenged.

Federal Judge Bruce Jenkins is scheduled to hold a trial on the lawsuit next year. In the meantime, the Gay/Straight Alliance, drawing anywhere from 15 to 45 students, meets weekly at the school - but, like any outside youth organization, must have an adult adviser and a sponsor and pay a fee.

The Alliance adviser is Camille Lee, an East High science teacher who has been out as a Lesbian for over three years. GLSEN is the Alliance's sponsor and pays the meeting fee. Alliance members say having Lee as adviser gives them a good "role model."

"We have someone who's willing to stick her neck out for us," says Chris Trindel, a 17-year-old openly Gay varsity cheerleader. "Most of the time, that pushes us to do better." The group gives support to its members, performs community volunteer work, and is planning a prom for Gay students and their backers.

Lee says the current East High principal has been extremely supportive of her and sensitive to the needs of Gay students.

The furor over Gay support clubs in the schools helped get GLSEN's state chapter started, says teacher Doug Wortham, who helped lead the chapter and was a founder of GALPAC, which contributes to Gay-supportive candidates.

But Wortham says that, in Utah, activism must be tempered with a strong dose of political reality. Fearful that Biskupski's campaign would be hurt if a Gay organization contributed a substantial amount to her campaign, GALPAC helped people make individual donations, which he says totaled $3,000.

"We're not hiding anything, but people are playing it carefully right now," says Wortham. "We're not out and screaming."

Similarly, when Jim Debakis, an openly Gay art dealer, called his old friend the governor to ask him to meet with a group of Gay youth, he did not publicize the request - or the eventual meeting - for fear it might hurt the governor and derail any future meetings.

Debakis says Leavitt, a Mormon, listened intently as the young people told him, among other things, about their fears of anti-Gay violence in the schools, problems with their families, and their opposition to the ban on Gay support clubs.

"The governor made it clear he didn't agree with a lot of our political goals," Debakis said, "but he said he had learned so much." Debakis says he told the governor that when politicians employ anti-Gay rhetoric, it encourages acts of bias and violence against Gay kids.

Debakis, a relatively new activist, has been a key figure in raising money for the just-opened community center. So far, he says, about $150,000 has been raised, almost enough for the first year's budget.

"I really don't see financing as the biggest challenge," Debakis says. "The bigger challenges are programming, keeping the community unified, and making sure we meet the needs of rural Utah." Executive director Monique Predovich says close to 300 people a week are coming to the center's coffee shop or meeting in groups that use the center.

Efforts are under way that will test how much the political and judicial climates have changed. Longtime Gay activist David Nelson and the Utah ACLU's Carol Gnade are putting together a task force to come up with a longterm strategy for eliminating the state's sodomy law. And Nelson says an amendment specifically including sexual orientation in Utah's hate crimes law will be proposed at next year's session - and he is optimistic it will pass.

But Utah lacks a statewide Gay political organization and is one of only five states without plans under way for joining in the nationwide actions by state Gay groups scheduled for next March. Utah may yet participate, says Nelson, but he's doubtful it will happen.

"We have an incredible burnout rate [among leaders]," says Nelson. "Certainly a state march is noble, but my guess is we're just very busy focusing on other things."

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