Last edited: January 01, 2005

Gay Political Hopeful Faces Fire

Associated Press, October 4, 1998

By Mike Carter

SALT LAKE CITY—To Jackie Biskupski, her run for the Utah Legislature is about taxes, crime and growth in the sprawling suburban district she wants to represent.

For almost everyone else, it’s about her sexuality. Biskupski, 32, is the first openly gay candidate to run for Utah’s staunchly conservative, overwhelmingly Mormon Legislature. Her candidacy has drawn fire from both the far right, which accuses her of living an "immoral and illegal lifestyle," and some homosexual activists who feel she’s turned her back on her own.

"I want to talk about the issues and everybody else wants to talk about this," said Biskupski, a Democrat and insurance adjuster who once wanted to be a police officer. "I’m not trying to hide anything. I just want people to see me as something other than a gay candidate."

That’s unlikely.

Her Republican opponent talks about "hidden agendas." The conservative Utah Eagle Forum, which helped "out" Biskupski during her unsuccessful race for a seat on the Salt Lake City Council last year, plans a similar campaign in coming weeks.

"Once we found out about it, we helped get the word out she was living a homosexual lifestyle," said Eagle Forum president Gayle Ruzicka. "Why wouldn’t we? It is certainly our business when a candidate is committing sodomy and living a blatantly immoral lifestyle."

The right-wing attacks mirror problems faced by other homosexual candidates around the country. Three lesbians, all Democrats, have won primary races for Congress this year in California, Washington and Wisconsin. A fourth lost in Massachusetts. All were, to one degree or another, targeted by the Christian right.

But Biskupski faces an additional burden. She’s being criticized from within the homosexual community, which fractured when Biskupski defeated lesbian activist Claudia O’Grady in a 1997 city council primary. For O’Grady’s supporters, Biskupski seemed reluctant to address the issue in public and simply wasn’t "gay enough."

"It caused a lot of dissension. There were and continue to be hard feelings," said David Nelson, chairman of the Utah Democrats’ gay and lesbian caucus. "It split the gay vote and certainly played a big factor in Jackie’s loss."

O’Grady declined to endorse Biskupski in the general election, which Biskupski lost by 43 votes to a moderate.

"After talking to my campaign workers, what it came down to was the manner in which she chose to use, or not use, her lesbianism," O’Grady said. "Did it suit her at this moment? Fine. Did it not suit her at this moment? Fine again."

O’Grady, Nelson and others agree Biskupski is far more at ease with the topic in this race. In some ways, it has played to her advantage.

"I think people are saddened when someone like Gayle Ruzicka comes along and wants to drive a wedge into a district where there are a lot of minorities, a lot of elderly and a lot of discrimination," Biskupski said. "That hurts the community far more than anything I’m capable of doing."

District 30, about 2 miles southeast of the city center, comprises mostly working-class neighborhoods. The seat has been held for 12 years by Rep. Gene Davis, one of the most liberal Democrats in the Utah House, and Biskupski, a member of the county Democratic Party executive committee, is favored to win regardless of the controversy.

Her moderate Republican opponent is Bryan Irving, a contractor with no political experience. Irving, 33, insists he hasn’t made an issue of Biskupski’s homosexuality -- a claim Biskupski scoffs at -- and denies any connection to Ruzicka.

"I will say that I believe in traditional family values. I think homosexuality is a choice and that it causes confusion and is destructive," said Irving, a Mormon and father of four who lives a block down the street from Biskupski.

Attention to the issue seems to have created some backlash to the Eagle Forum’s attacks.

"I think it’s just the person. I don’t think that stuff is anybody’s business, do you?" said Quma Anderson, an 88-year-old lifelong Democrat.

"I just don’t see how it concerns (Ruzicka)," said 20-year-old Rebecca Roberts, who says she leans Republican. "I can’t see how it makes a difference."

Others in the district, however, like Robert Waite, find the whole issue unsettling.

"I guess I’d lean toward voting for someone a little more traditional," he said.

Biskupski acknowledges the issue is likely not to go away even if she’s elected to the 75-member Utah House, where she would join a band of Democrats now outnumbered by Republicans 55-20.

The Utah Legislature as a whole has not been friendly to homosexual issues. In 1996, state senators of both parties held an illegal closed caucus to discuss homosexual student clubs in high schools. Lawmakers came close to banning all clubs -- including the chess club and Future Farmers of America -- to prevent gay students from meeting.

The previous year, lawmakers passed a last-minute bill strengthening Utah’s law against same-sex marriage.

Biskupski insists she has no intention of going near any of those issues.

"I believe I’ll be able to get along. I’m a good consensus builder," she said. "I don’t think people feel threatened by me."

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