While the fight for gay marriage has hatched a whole new generation of gay rights activists, some Utahns have had their shoulder to the wheel of equality for decades. One of the most notable, Dave Nelson, is a pioneer of queer politics in the state who has carved a niche for himself in Utah politics for being a fierce advocate of his community since the early ’80s while also fighting for the rights of gun owners.
An iconoclastic mesh of political ideologies, he is not-so-neatly pegged as a gay Libertarian Democrat with a flare for firearms advocacy. He has plenty to say on all that Utah’s recent gay activism has done right, as well as its multiple missteps.
Nelson got his start in activism as a politically conscious student at the University of Utah. His first call to action came after several friends committed suicide rather than face coming out to their families.
“I grew up being gay,” Nelson says. “I didn’t know any different, so it was just a mind shock to have my friends pop up dead like that. That’s when I got into the Gay and Lesbian Student Union at the University of Utah.”
Waging the battle of LGBT equality on campus was good practice for Nelson’s future activism with state government.
Graduating into the world of politics, Nelson made a failed bid for the Salt Lake City Council and decided, instead, to put his energy into creating a bloc of gay state delegates. The Stonewall Democrats, as they were called, were critical in helping formulate the state’s 1992 hate-crime laws, which, while not creating protected classes, was at least a symbolic victory for the queer community. After the law’s passage, the group continued to flex its new political muscle, by ousting incumbent Democratic Sen. Ted Lewis of Salt Lake City, who had voted against the hate-crime legislation. Pete Suazo won the seat, and would eventually become the strongest advocate of real hate-crime laws in the state until his death in a 4-wheeler accident in 2001.
In early 2001, Nelson extended his libertarian cause to protect individual liberties surrounding gun issues. His gun group, Stonewall Shooting Sports, boasts more than 500 supporters—including many conservatives and even the occasional gun-toting celebrity like Ted Nugent.
Nelson’s support of 2nd Amendment rights has also given him a greater bond with many conservative Utah politicians.
“He is effective at what he does,” Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman told City Weekly in an email. “He understands that he and I share an interesting dynamic. We are polar opposites on one issue of importance [gays], but exactly the same on the other [guns].”
Nelson has been impressed by some of the strides made in recent months by local gay activists, and the strategy of the Common Ground initiative. But he felt some moves were rookie errors, like pushing the Salt Lake City nondiscrimination ordinance.
“That was reaching a little too far. I don’t think they had their ducks in a row on that one,” he says, claiming that the LDS Church’s late endorsement saved the ordinance’s “bacon.” Nelson also says that the fact that the LDS Church sees the policy as “shareable” isn’t a mandate for legislators to pass it—giving only a fifty percent chance of significant gay rights legislation even being introduced in the 2010 session.
Nelson also worries crucial momentum after Proposition 8 may have been squandered. “It’s good to strike while the iron is hot, but you’ve got to give [volunteers] a sense of ownership with what comes the day after.” Nelson says activists could have done better to organize in Utah, such as early training for delegates for upcoming precinct meetings.
One approach he felt was missing was to take up nondiscrimination issues in LDS wards, asking active Mormons who support gay rights to talk to their bishops and fellow ward members about how the church’s opposition impacts LDS families.
Nelson sees the importance of bridge-building between gay activists and entities like cities and churches, but ultimately says the work can’t be driven by allies. Even with the Legislature more open to discussing discrimination protections, Nelson says issues like the Common Ground Initiative can only be realized by willing members of the LGBT community ready to own the issue.
“[Legislators] are not going to be our cheerleaders, and we shouldn’t expect them to be. We are our own cheerleaders—no one else.”